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Wisconsin dairy teams up to tackle reproduction

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 31 December 2012

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Editor’s note: Names have been omitted to protect the innocent and allow discussion to flow freely within the team. We assure you this is a real farm with real cows, real owners, real team members and real problems.

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Everyone knows it takes a village to raise a child. It also takes a team to run a dairy. From 30 cows to 30,000 cows, a dairy producer cannot do it alone.

That is why the University of Wisconsin – Extension unveiled a new team-based program to increase farm income by enhancing the reproductive performance of a producer’s cows. Repro Money provides producers the resources and tools needed to make better management decisions regarding the reproductive management of their farm.

Since it began in 2011, 40 farms have completed the program and 10 more are currently enrolled. This fall, Progressive Dairyman was granted access to a southern Wisconsin dairy that was just starting the program.

The dairy’s owners consist of a father, son and uncle. As with each farm in the program, the owners decide whom to have on their reproduction team. This farm’s team is comprised of the breeder, veterinarian, herdsman, reproduction specialist, nutritionist and consultant.

Team members commit to meeting at least four times over the course of the program. At the first meeting, team members were introduced, current data was shared, problems were identified and goals were set.

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The farm has 850 cows, milks three times a day and uses rBST on 60 percent of the herd. Cows are grouped by stage of lactation, age and reproductive status. Fresh feed is provided once per day and pushed up eight times each day. A single ration is provided to all lactating cows.

Its purpose for entering the program is to achieve better “consistency in reproduction,” the son said.

The farm uses a standard 14-11 Presynch/Ovsynch protocol. With a 60-day voluntary waiting period, the first Lutalyse injection is giving at 42 days.

Tail chalking and visual assessment are used for heat detection. The breeder, or “cow whisperer” as the nutritionist called him, does this.

A mating program does sire selection. The farm spends about $18 per straw for the first two services and then drops to $10 per straw.

Breeding is done once a day and pregnancy diagnosis is once per week at 32 to 39 days via ultrasound. Pregnant cows are reconfirmed at 72 and 186 days.

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Anovular cows are detected by ultrasound and estimated to be at 25 to 30 percent of the herd, which varies by season.

Open cows are given GnRH and scanned the following week; if there is no CL they are given a CIDR.

Replacements leave the farm at 10 months old. They are bred by age and height. Some sexed semen is used here.

What is going well

• Milk components are great with a herd average of 3.7 fat and 3.2 protein.

• Cases of clinical mastitis are at 2 percent. Less than a quarter of the herd (22 percent) has a somatic cell count greater than 200,000.

• An alternating footbath of formaldehyde and copper sulfate is used and hoof trimming is done weekly at a minimum.

• The milking cow facilities provide adequate bunk space per cow and sprinklers and fans for heat abatement.

• The farm just started coding for postpartum disease in May, but since then cases of metabolic disease, metritis, retained placenta and displaced abomasums are pretty low. According to the veterinarian, “They’ve done really good with this. They don’t overcrowd the fresh cows.”

• Cows leaving the herd for a reproductive reason is low at 6 percent.

• Abortion rate is OK at 9 percent, but the vet mentioned they are starting to see an uptick here.

• Average days dry is 56.

• 73 percent of cows are bred within 21 days of the voluntary waiting period. By 100 days in milk, almost every cow is bred.

What needs work

• The pregnancy rate is 18 percent. Although the farm has been higher, it struggles with consistency. “With the money we spend on technicians, semen, drugs and the vet, our preg rate should be a minimum 19 to 20 percent without even a blip,” the father said.

After some discussion, an achievable goal was set at 21 percent.

The specialist from UW – Extension guiding the team calculated that an increase of three percentage points would gain the farm $46,750 annually.

• Milk production could be higher. The farm had been at 91 pounds per day, but it took a hit with the hot, dry summer. Right now production is at 85 to 87 pounds per cow. Another reasonable goal was set to hit 90+ pounds per cow again.

• The insemination rate is 56 percent with not a lot of variance, but the vet mentioned the goal is to have an insemination rate above 60 percent.

Average days to first insemination is 77 to 78 days, and the farm averages 38 days between breeding, which seemed long.

The entire herd is synched for first service, but the breeder will start watching for heats on the second Lutalyse injection and breed from there.

Cows on their third Lutalyse are ultrasounded and, if found to be cystic, are restarted on Ovsynch, which is what pushes the average to 38 days between breeding.

The veterinarian said he’s thought about suggesting double-Ovsynch and being more aggressive on resynch, but it would mean more injections to administer. He said some trade-off would come in fewer scans and a greater chance to get cows pregnant on the first breeding. There should also be fewer cystic cows at preg check, he said.

The reproductive specialist said the farm would gain more compliance from the cows through a double-Ovsynch protocol, but it would also lose out on first-service breedings based on heat detection. “The heat detection is very good,” he said.

The son added that other farms are achieving higher pregnancy rates with the same protocol and they can, too. They just need to figure out what to do differently.

• The overall cull rate is 36 percent, but 9 percent of the herd is involuntarily culled from 0 to 60 days, which most of the team agreed was rather high. The father said that was mostly due to blank quarters, pneumonia and early-lactation lameness.

The farm has been working to build more heifer inventory and up until this point most culling has been involuntary. Decisions to stop breeding a cow are based on the number of breedings (maximum number is 8), milk production and udder health.

Because they are trying to build herd numbers it has been hard for them to label cows as “do not breed.” However, it was pointed out there are some cows in early lactation that one can identify as having a limited possibility of getting pregnant; the farm could save a lot of money and a lot of time and keep them milking longer if they were labeled DNB.

“If we put down a lot of DNBs and it doesn’t work, what do we do in the next six months?” asked the father.

The veterinarian asked if a cow could be coded in the computer so she would not be synched – but still leave her as a reproductive candidate should she come into natural heat.

• The conception rate is 34 percent for the entire herd (37 percent for first lactation and 32 percent for second and greater lactations). This does not vary by season. Because they cherry-pick cows displaying heat, cows bred to estrus are higher than those bred to timed A.I. (41 versus 35 percent for first lactation and 35 percent versus 27 percent for second lactation and greater). “Not good enough,” the vet said.

• Second-lactation animals were identified as a problem group. From the first of July until November, first-lactation animals maintained their pregnancy rate. Third-lactation- and-higher animals lost 1.7 percent in pregnancy rate, but the second lactation lost twice that (3.4 percent).

For conception rate, these groups are registering with first lactation at 37 percent, second lactation at 30 percent and older cows at 33 percent. According to the data, this has occurred in second-lactation animals for a few years and therefore is not specific to this particular group.

Second-lactation cows are housed in the same pen with the older cows. They eat the same ration and undergo the same pen moves.

All dry cows are housed together. It was noted that dry cow housing needs to be improved because it is tight on space. Someone suggested splitting the first-lactation and older cows into separate groups, but the configuration of the dry cow barn in regards to placement of the waterer doesn’t make that a simple fix.

• Conception rate for heifers is 56 percent, pregnancy rate is 22 percent and they are meeting a 24-month average age at first calving. That average hides the bad performers, as 34 percent of heifers freshen in beyond 24 months. The farm has been working to clean up the heifers’ age at first service; however, the reproduction specialist said some are still trickling through. “That trend is coming down,” he said.

If the farm reduced the number of days it fed heifers by 30 it could save $23,000, based on a $2-per-day feed cost. “You don’t realize you’re even feeding them and end up putting a lot of money into a bad heifer,” the reproduction specialist said.

According to the breeder, the majority of the problems come from heifers at one of the two heifer raisers’ facilities. It is equipped with double headlocks that some of the heifers have a difficult time using. It seems those heifers are learning the bad habit of sticking their head underneath the headlock to reach food in another facility, and when they get to the double headlocks they are no longer able to do that and fall behind because they go off feed.

Action plans

• Come up with a system to enter pneumonia and/or scours occurrences in calves into the computer.

• Sell all freemartin heifers at birth, same for twins. Consider culling young animals that aren’t likely to perform well in the future based on incidences of disease that will now be tracked. This should be done before they are sent to the heifer raisers.

• Replace the headlocks where heifers cheat and reach underneath with a cheap neck rail.

• Body condition score second-lactation animals, and possibly locomotion score them too.

• Begin labeling cows as “do not breed” to remove them from the breeding program, but breed them to a cheap bull if they display a natural heat.

• Have farm owners or employees give Lutalyse injections to heifers. There aren’t enough cases to justify having the vet make the extra trip.

• Look into converting a naturally ventilated freestall barn to a tunnel-ventilated barn that could add extra relief from heat stress.

At subsequent meetings, the team members will evaluate their progress and make adjustments as needed. Progressive Dairyman will continue to follow this farm through the program. PD

If anyone has ideas that could help this dairy troubleshoot its reproductive challenges, please click here to send an e-mail with Repro Money in the subject line.

Wisconsin producers seeking more information about Repro Money or to enroll in the program, can contact their local UW – Extension agent or click here to visit the website.

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Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

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