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Dairy farm works through its reproductive challenges

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 30 April 2013

Editor’s note: This is the second article in a series following a Wisconsin dairy farm through the Repro Money program, administered by University of Wisconsin Extension.

The first article appeared in the Jan. 1, 2013 issue of Progressive Dairyman. As a reminder, names have been omitted to protect the identity of the farm.



Two team meetings have transpired since the first of the year. Certain working areas have been identified and progress is being made as the farm works towards a consistent 21 percent pregnancy rate.

Subclinical ketosis
The first article in this series drew a response from a Progressive Dairyman reader encouraging the farm to look at subclinical ketosis. It was brought in front of the team and discussion ensued.

The farm’s veterinarian agreed it was a valid point. It had been a few years since the farm had a NEFA test performed by the University of Wisconsin.

Clinical ketosis rates are low at slightly more than 6 percent, but that doesn’t necessarily mean subclinical cases are low.

“A blood test would be easiest to do,” the veterinarian said and offered to get a BHBA meter and test strips to check the herd for a two-week period.


The farm’s nutritionist agreed a spot check would be good to see if there really was a problem.

It was decided the cows would be tested on day two and day nine post-fresh.

SOPs for fresh cows
Of the father, son and uncle ownership team, the father said they have developed written SOPs for some areas, but they tend to get lost in the shuffle. More often than not, the protocol changes, but the paper copy doesn’t get updated.

He agreed to work with the herdsman to record the fresh cow protocol that is in current practice. The veterinarian offered to look it over to see if any changes should be made.

The farm is doing better with its record-keeping. Calf treatments are now entered in the herd management system and more cows are being marked as bulls to signify “do not breed,” which leaves the option open should they display a natural heat.

They did run into a problem with their milk tester when using that coding system. The owners will work with him to find a way to meet the needs of both parties.


The nutritionist reported that he has been body condition scoring the herd, but he needs to organize his data. In reviewing his notes, he said he doesn’t see a problem with body condition; any low-scoring cows are older than second lactation.

A representative from Zinpro came to the farm to do a lameness assessment. He found there were areas where the farm excelled and others where it could improve.

In a couple of pens, there was quite a bit of perching. This was a result of the neck rail being placed back farther to improve somatic cell count.

Some mattresses were getting worn, and the farm agreed to pad them with additional bedding.

The farm was hoof trimming at freshening, which ended up being more corrective than preventive. They decided to enter new trim protocols in the herd management software to develop a new trim list that would transition trimming to be done at dry-off.

Overall, the lameness assessment calculated the farm was losing on average 3 pounds of production a day due to these problems.

Breeding protocol
The program coordinator asked to revisit the idea of adding an extra dose of GnRH or do a Double-Ovsynch protocol to shorten the breeding interval because more than 60 percent of the cows have a breeding interval of more than 36 days.

In an ideal situation that number would be 28 days, the reproduction specialist said. He also reminded that the reason this farm’s number is high is because they elect to kick out the non-compliant cows.

“It may not be a bad idea with the rate of cystic cows we see sometimes,” the veterinarian said.

The downside is that hormone is wasted on the cows already pregnant, the reproduction specialist pointed out.

It was estimated that on a good palpation day, only 40 percent of the potentially pregnant cows actually are, which would mean the farm would benefit from the extra dose. However, looking at the farm’s numbers, in the last 100 days, 58 percent of cows were pregnant at preg check.

Involuntary culls
According to the veterinarian, the involuntary cull rate is at 36 percent, a fair amount of which is culled due to death. In many instances, it’s because the farm stuck with those cows for too long, and they died before they had a chance to sell them, he said.

Some of those dead cows were cows that were treated when they should have been culled.

The son said that has improved in the last few months. His father agreed and said he’s now struggling to maintain a herd number of 850. Looking at herd inventories, the herd will only be at 825 to 830 cows from March through June.

When asked about the focus to maintain a certain amount in the herd, the father explained part of the reason was to meet the bank’s expectations.

The other reason is because when he considers a profit of $3,000 to $3,500 per cow, it helps to keep the herd as close to 850 cows as possible.

The nutritionist questioned how much money was being spent on certain cows to get that profit per cow. He mentioned some animals should not freshen into the herd; instead they should be sold before they go dry and the farm would be better off financially.

But the father said he struggles with selling good healthy cows too soon.

“You can’t hang on to a cow that is costing you money,” the veterinarian said.

The father said he looks at 35-pounds-and-under cows each month. Looking at that list, there were 18 cows. When the very pregnant cows are extracted, the list tightens to five cows. At that point, the team suggested looking at what is the value of each of those cows.

The reproduction specialist said, “At the end of the day, think of the profit per cow – what she costs every day and what she’s giving back.”

The team also advised to consider what it takes to replace a cow. Right now, replacements are inexpensive, and a cull cow can return about 80 percent of the replacement cost.

Since the herd’s expansion, the heifer inventory has now grown to one-to-one. It was estimated that it would take about a year at this ratio for the herd to yield the benefits of a well-stocked replacement program.

Heifer conception rate
The farm’s heifer pregnancy rate is really low. There is concern the ration is too low in energy now that the amount of hay was increased to combat mycotoxin problems.

The reproduction specialist and nutritionist were going to have the feed tested, and the farm will add in a mycotoxin binder. The farm will also talk with the nutritionists used by the heifer raisers.

The program coordinator said there’s a new economic tool being beta-tested to calculate the true pregnancy rate of heifers because not every heifer is bred at 13 months. She was going to see if they could use it to better define the pregnancy rate.

The farm also decided to review their heifer breeding protocol.

Other changes
The father mentioned they recently changed to giving rBST injections every 10 days instead of every 14 days. They had been tracking production with flow meters and saw the cows were falling off those last four days. Some cows were swinging six pounds at a time, he said.

A few of the pens were regrooved over winter. The breeder said he sees a lot less slippage now.

It was mentioned that herd health checks take longer than they need to because a lot of time is spent chasing cows. The reproductive specialist said he’s seen other farms dead-end the pens.

They place a gate in the opposite alley to split the pen in half. After the veterinarian checks the first half of cows in headlocks, they are released.

The remaining cows positioned in front of the gate are ushered into the headlocks while the veterinarian is checking the second half. The farm decided to put additional gates in the pens that are used most for herd checks to see if it helps. PD


Karen Lee
Progressive Dairyman