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1309 PD: No magic bullets when it comes to high pregnancy rates

Alisa Anderson Published on 25 August 2009

In 2004 Kirt Sloan went to work as a consultant for dairyman Pete DeHaan near Salem, Oregon, with the goal of improving the pregnancy rate of Pete's herd.

DeHaan had leased an empty facility for his heifers and thought he could grow his herd internally. To do so, he would need to improve the breeding efficiency of his cows, especially his heifers.

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Since that time they have achieved a 38 percent pregnancy rate at their heifer dairy and have maintained a 27 percent pregnancy rate within their main herd. They've also expanded from milking 1,300 cows to milking 1,900 cows without buying a single replacement.

When asked how they did it, Pete says, "Honestly, it's simple. It's not easy, but it's pretty simple."

Genetics and breeding protocols
They started with a goal to have cows that needed a minimum amount of injections and to get rid of the "border-line fertile cows," according to Kirt.

They started with standard Presynch-Ovsynch breeding protocols and timed A.I.

"I was doing a lot of the breeding then and was seeing that, on the second shot of lutalyse, we were getting some just monster heats. I started picking some of those off. By doing that, we were breeding a little bit early, but we were still getting that ripping heat off of that second shot of lutalyse," Kirt says.

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Kirt says he wanted to move the first shots of lutalyse up 10 days, so he would be giving the shots 49 to 55 days after calving instead of at 39 to 45 days. He decided to try it after talking with geneticist Dr. Paul Fricke.

They started breeding the cows off the second shot of lutalyse. Their conception rates went up 5 to 7 percent, and they didn't have to use the last three shots.

About that time their veterinarian and one of their friends advised them to select for health traits, such as daughter pregnancy rate and productive life.

"We really focused on daughter pregnancy rate. Some people were telling us that it was a low-heritable trait and that it's not that important, but I beg to differ with them. I think it is a pretty good indicator of how well cows get through transition. If you select for health traits you're going to get a stronger cow that doesn't look as sharp or that peaks quite as high as those cows that we all fall in love with. But they're a lot more persistent and so you get fewer changes in body score throughout the lactation. We basically learned to appreciate a little bit different cow than we had before," Kirt says.

Improving basic protocols
"I've been in dairying since I was 18, and I'm over 50 now. The biggest thing I've seen in improving preg rates is quality forage," Kirt says.

Pete agrees. He feeds the cows alfalfa hay, clover silage, corn silage and a grain mix. They put up all of their forage, and Pete oversees that carefully. They keep the pits clean and sample the forages once or twice a week for moisture. They do whatever they can to make sure that what the cows are getting is what the nutritionist had planned.

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Overall herd health is very important. The dairy has marginal lameness and health problems." When the cows are healthy, everything else seems to work," Pete says.

Part of keeping cows healthy is body scoring regularly. The cows are body-scored five times a year - at 180 days, 260 days and 278 days pregnant; during their dry period; and two weeks after freshening. They have dry cow rations for fat and thin cows.

"If our body scores on our fat cows are going up, we can see that we're going to have a problem, and we adjust our rations accordingly. We can dictate how long that problem is going to last. We like our fat cows to lose a tenth of their body score. If they don't, chances are we're going to have some issues. We're basically fixing the problem even before it happens," Pete says.

Keeping things clean is also important to cow health. Pete says one of his main priorities is cleanliness. Even all the feeding equipment is kept mold-free.

He says that whenever they have a fresh cow problem, all they do is clean everything in the cow's environment.

"Say you have a dirty calving pen. The guys touch that, and then they go into the cow, and shoot, you've got the cow infected before she's even got a chance," he says.

A hundred little things
Commitment to working hard and being consistent are the main keys to high pregnancy rates.

"We work hard to do a good job every time, not just when someone is looking," Pete says.

Kirt says that there is not one single protocol that will make a good pregnancy rate.

"It's a hundred little things that add up to make it work. There are no magic bullets in this business, as much as we like to believe that. You've got to do everything right to make it work. It's an attitude as much as anything. You've got to have people that care, and you've got to have an attitude that it's possible," he says. PD

Alisa Anderson
Staff Writer
Progressive Dairyman

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