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When breeding is a top priority

Published on 06 February 2009
It is not uncommon to hear about conception rates being around 20 percent, especially on large dairies.

John and Berlinda Vander Wal, originally from the Netherlands, own and operate Newalta Dairy in Pipestone, Minnesota and consistently reach into 35 percent conception rates most of the year.

In May 2008, they were averaging 43 percent on their 1,200-cow dairy. The Vander Wals have established a system that has kept their cows healthy, happy and pregnant.

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“I would rather not look at those numbers too much, because if you focus on them too much, then [the breeders] are going to think that’s very important,” John Vander Wal says about his on-farm breeders.

“I don’t tell anyone ‘I want your numbers to go up.’ I don’t want them to say, ‘I am not going to do that cow or that cow.’ I don’t want them to be too selective, especially when I am not around, and only pick certain cows [so their numbers are better]. If you aren’t shooting you won’t get any cows pregnant.”

Vander Wal has been dairying for 20 years, and has been inseminating cows for a long time. His other three breeders were trained in mid-2007 by their A.I. technician and consultant, Byron Andersen of Alta Genetics.

Byron also brought Dr. Carlos Tellez with him to teach the Spanish-speaking workers. Tellez is a veterinarian originally from Colombia, now living in Texas. He taught milker training, heat detection, calf raising, cow care at calving and A.I. training.

According to Vander Wal, Ramon, who is their herdsman, takes the training he received from Tellez to be “the truth and nothing but the truth,” and the other Spanish-speaking workers believe it just as completely. In both cases, Vander Wal believes that breeders gain confidence and ability through experience. He wants them to give it their best and knows they will get better.

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“You have to give them a chance to breed some cows and get the feel for it,” Vander Wal says. “You just have to let them go.”

Vander Wal also had all of his pushers and many of his milkers trained to know how to recognize heat signs. Vander Wal thinks that everyone should be cognizant of heats and what to look for. Some of the crews are still getting better at recognizing the signs, but he thinks that having everyone looking for signs, helps get his cows bred on time.

“[Some experts] say there should be one guy in charge of heat detection,” says Vander Wal, who has eight full-time employees. “I find that kind of stupid because if there is a guy that sees a cow in heat then he should write it down. Then later if I think she is in heat and I see her written on the board, then I know she is in heat.”

Employee management isn’t the only thing that helps the Vander Wals’ cows conceive so well. Vander Wal attributes some of their success to their ration and cow comfort. He thinks that by not cutting corners on the ration his cows are productive and able to come into heats healthy and average 88 pounds per lactation.

“We still feed the traditional way, with cottonseed,” says Vander Wal, who ran a dairy farm in Alberta, Canada, for 15 years before coming to Minnesota. “Some people took out the more expensive products, the high- energy products. They try to cheapen out their ration and ultimately that might hurt your conception. We didn’t cheapen our ration.”

The cows are also trimmed as soon as they show signs of lameness. Vander Wal doesn’t tolerate lameness. They use rubber mats in the holding pen, parlor and return alley so the cows are comfortable. They also have an SCC count that hovers around 100,000. This is achieved by raking the sawdust bedding three times a day.

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Joel Wieland, an Alta Genetics representative, said that what sets this dairy apart is their attention to detail.

“They breed the cows as they come into heat. The cows are in shape and are ready to be bred. That makes a difference. The little things add up to one big thing,” Wieland says. “Compared to some big dairy owners, Vander Wal knows his cows better than most. Everybody walking through the barn should observe for heats, or should be taught how to, so they understand the importance of it.”

Vander Wal does do a lot of the day-to-day work on the farm, he admits, but that is where he wants to be.

“My wife says, ‘you need to spend more time in the office and check bills’ and all that, but I like to farm,” Vander Wal says as Berlinda nods in agreement. “I don’t like to spend time in the office. My wife is very good with all the paperwork and I am very fortunate that I don’t have to spend a lot of time in the office.”

The Vander Wals take advice from their semen providers about which bulls to use. They say dairymen should keep their A.I. representatives part of the team and ask for reports to show trends and get advice on ways to improve their procedure. The Vander Wals suggest that successful breeding is born from focusing on details.

“The thing that makes a successful breeding system is that it has to be a top priority,” Vander Wal says. “You constantly have to focus on it.” PD

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