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Getting cows bred: How 3 dairies get it done

Stephanie Skernivitz Published on 24 September 2015
dairy cows being bred

Confirming more than 40 percent of cows pregnant from the first service and conception rates nearing 30 percent don’t just happen; these are the result of meticulous management, protocol adherence and teamwork.

Three different dairy managers from across the country, who have blown past these benchmarks, divulge what they are doing to achieve successful reproduction programs.

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Walnutdale Farm

Aubrey (Lettinga) Van Lann is the herd manager at Walnutdale Farm in Wayland, Michigan.

“If our cows do not get pregnant in the early stage of their lactation, it is very costly to our operation,” she says. “We keep a very close watch on our conception rates of technicians and of the different sires we use, along with the pregnancy rate of our herd, to know if we have any problems in our management of reproduction or problems in our dry and fresh cow practices.”

Their 1,500-cow Holstein herd maintains a pregnancy rate of 29 percent and first-service conception rate of 44 percent. Their second farm, Bre View Jerseys in Caledonia, Michigan, performs well too. The pregnancy rate for 520 milking cows is also 29 percent. Cows are bred to sexed semen on first service, with a conception rate of 33 percent; those that repeat receive conventional semen, with 47 percent settling on the second service.

The dairy has hit these numbers by starting cows off with a Presynch program. Lettinga relies on their breeding technician to tail-chalk cows in the breeding pens daily. All cows receive their first A.I. service by 75 days in milk.

Cows are checked by ultrasound by an on-farm employee at 29 days, then checked again at 70 days. Those that are open at pregnancy check are enrolled in Ovsynch that day and rebred the following week. The dairy also uses milk pregnancy testing to verify the status of cows that are in pens without headlocks.

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Lettinga has focused recent efforts on improving the heifer breeding program. “We were having problems getting heifers into the A.I. pens and getting them bred quickly,” she notes.

The protocol included breeding heifers off of standing heat after a prostaglandin (PGF) shot. Those that didn’t show heat after a second shot received a CIDR.

“We had too many heifers not getting bred off [the shot] and a large number of them needing a CIDR,” she says. “We made changes with our technicians, which included better heat observations by marking the heifers that got [a shot] that week.”

They also tweaked their management by moving heifers into breeding pens at around 350 days. This allows Lettinga to observe and record early heats, while giving heifers time to adjust to the headlocks and the pen change prior to breeding at 417 for Holsteins and 390 days for Jerseys. She also took a closer look at the ration, as well as the growth rate of the animals, tracking both height and weight for optimal breeding time. This attention to detail has paid off. Now, CIDRs are rarely used.

Ayers Farms Inc.

Jesse Ayers, part family owner at Ayers Farms Inc. of Perrysville, Ohio, manages the reproduction program for the 695-cow herd. He relies predominantly on a shot protocol to achieve a 21-day pregnancy rate of 32 to 35 percent, with a first-service conception rate of 58 percent.

“About 97 to 98 percent are synchronized with basically no heat detection; we breed a few natural heats normally on synchronized breeding days,” Ayers says. “We only chalk on the last PGF shot, and it is done to speed up finding cows at breeding time.”

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Just over a year ago, Ayers changed the shot protocol to increase first-service conception. Now, on first service, Ayers uses the PG-3-G protocol for cows and a slightly modified version (PG-4-G) for 2-year-old heifers, as opposed to the Presynch-14-14 protocol in the past. He has also lengthened the voluntary waiting period from 62 to 69 days, which has helped in hitting the goal of more cows pregnant at first-service.

Cows are checked for pregnancy by ultrasound at the following days post-breeding: 39, 74 and 165. Open cows with a functional corpus luteum (CL) then get PGF. Those with no CL get a second shot of GNRH and are bred the next week.

Dutch Road Dairy

Matthew and Nancy Beckerink own Dutch Road Dairy of Muleshoe, Texas. The reproduction program for the 2,300-cow herd is managed by Raoul Arce and his assistant manager, Pedro Rodriguez. Making reproduction a priority has paid off, with a pregnancy rate averaging 26 to 31 percent and a first-service conception rate at 45 percent.

Their plan for success includes monitoring heats by spray-painting tail heads every morning and employing Presynch and Resynch protocols for the past 10 years. They also work closely with their breeding company to train and retrain employees. Quarterly reproductive performance reviews also help to keep the team motivated and on-target.

The biggest reproductive challenge these dairy producers of the High Plains face is heat stress.

“On the dairy herd, in the summer we might make a few changes, since we get really hot weather in July and August. We struggle reproduction-wise then. So we adjust and might change up our Presynch program by including an additional shot,” Matthew Beckerink says. “Cows are only locked up for heat detection and breeding in the morning while it is cooler.”  PD

Stephanie Skernivitz is a freelance writer in Berea, Ohio.

PHOTO: By moving heifers into breeding pens sooner, Walnutdale Dairy is able to observe and track heats prior to first A.I., and the animals adjust better to their new group and headlocks. These changes have contributed to reducing the use of CIDRs on the heifers. Photo by Stephanie Skernivitz.

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