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Heifer reproduction benchmarks, key performance indicators

King Smith Published on 31 October 2013

When it comes to key performance indicators in heifer reproduction, I continue to be amazed at how many producers around the country do not measure their heifer reproductive programs appropriately.

Historically, heifer reproduction has been overlooked because producers look at only a few reproductive measures and assume their heifer reproduction is performing well.

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The two most widely monitored heifer reproduction measures are conception rate and percentage pregnant at pregnancy examination.

These two measures are important to know but actually do little to show the whole picture when it comes to measuring acceptable heifer reproductive performance because they don’t take into account heifers that have not been inseminated or how long it took for heifers to become pregnant.

When monitoring heifer reproduction, time is the most important factor for measuring when heifers are inseminated, pregnant and freshen. Time correlates directly back to days on feed, which is the most costly input when it comes to raising replacement females.

As we look for key performance indicators to evaluate heifer reproduction, it is important to understand what key performance indicators are and how we can use them in heifer reproduction programs.

All key performance indicators should contain a few basic characteristics. First, a key performance indicator should be something that is actually measurable with hard numbers and not simply an estimate.

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Second, a key performance indicator should always have a timeframe associated with the measurement to ensure the data can be quantified. Key performance indicators that are left open-ended have no urgency for accomplishment and therefore become simply suggestions and not usable as a measuring stick.

Third, key performance indicators should be gauges that, once determined, can be easily calculated and recorded. Key performance indicators that are cumbersome and hard to calculate usually fall by the wayside over time. They should not be over-weighted with historical data and should always be measured and calculated in the same way.

It is crucial to remember that key performance indicators are about where we are headed and not as much about where we have been. I would consider heifer reproductive key performance indicators much like a product manufacturer would.

Manufacturers look at cycle time, which is the total time it takes from the beginning to the end of a process. In regards to heifer reproduction, cycle time would be the time it takes from the voluntary waiting period to conception.

Benchmarking your heifer reproductive program can be achieved by working with consultants that engage with a number of heifer reproductive programs similar in size and scale to your operation. Peer groups can also be established with like-minded producers looking to set benchmarks to help improve their overall heifer-breeding programs.

Benchmarks should not be confused with goals because they are not the same and serve two different purposes. Benchmarks should be based on industry best practices and results.

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Goals should be set for each individual herd and should be monitored and changed as each goal is obtained to help foster continued improvement of the breeding program.

Six key performance indicators you should consider monitoring and benchmarking in your heifer reproduction program are:

• Pregnancy rate

• Age at first insemination

• Percentage inseminated two cycles past the voluntary waiting period

• Percentage pregnant three cycles past the voluntary waiting period

• Age at conception

• Number of pregnancies generated per month

Pregnancy rate in a heifer reproductive program is the speed at which the cycle (voluntary waiting period to conception) can be completed. It is measured by dividing the number of new pregnancies generated in a 21-day period by the eligible number of heifers that could become pregnant during that same 21-day period.

Pregnancy rates can sometimes be hard to measure and benchmark because of the variability from one herd to the next of when heifers are considered eligible to be inseminated.

Most producers can begin breeding Holstein heifers at 13 months old if they meet the minimum weight of 850 pounds and a hip height of 51 inches. A pregnancy rate benchmark of 40 percent with a voluntary waiting period of 395 days old can be used in Holstein heifers, in most cases.

If the voluntary waiting period of 395 days cannot be met, a review of the heifer-raising program is in order to see why heifers are not obtaining the weight and hip height minimums.

An appropriate benchmark as to when to begin inseminating Jerseys and other breeds would be when they obtain 55 percent of the mature animal’s weight and 85 percent of the mature animal’s height.

Most well-managed Jersey operations can meet these requirements by 350 days old and therefore would use a voluntary waiting period of 350 days.

Pregnancy rate is measured in 21-day intervals, and special attention should be paid to the last 120 days to look for momentum and current direction of the program.

Age at first insemination is a product of the voluntary waiting period of the herd. With a voluntary waiting period of 395 days, the benchmark for age at first insemination should be 406 days old, which is simply 11 days past the voluntary waiting period.

Age at first insemination should be measured every 30 days to ensure animals are getting inseminated in a timely manner.

Percentage inseminated two cycles past the voluntary waiting period should be measured every month and a benchmark of 95 percent should be attainable.

Percentage pregnant three cycles past the voluntary waiting period should be measured every month and a benchmark of 80 percent should be within reach.

Age at conception is also tied to the voluntary waiting period. With a voluntary waiting period of 395 days, the benchmark should be 433 days, and again, should be measured every month.

Number of pregnancies generated per month is a number all producers should know along with the number of heifer pregnancies needed per month to maintain the current herd size.

The number of pregnant heifers needed each month is a calculation between herd size and the annual culling rate of the lactating herd.

For example, a 1,000-cow herd with a 40 percent cull rate would need approximately 35 new heifers pregnant each month to maintain herd size. Obviously, if the herd wants to expand, more than 35 heifers pregnant each month would be required.

In regards to meeting all the benchmarks of the key performance indicators for heifer reproduction, there is one item that can negatively affect the majority of these, and that is when heifers are being moved into the breeding pens.

Heifer reproduction programs that are routinely meeting or exceeding benchmarks move heifers into the breeding pens weekly.

The act of moving heifers into breeding pens weekly helps maintain a consistent flow of breeding animals and gives the program the ability to obtain the level of key performance indicators mentioned above.

Some of the above benchmarks would need to be adjusted if the producer is using sexed semen on multiple services due to the conception rates observed with sexed semen.

When reviewing heifer reproduction, it is important to remember that heifers are an expense with no revenue until they are either sold or come into production.

With today’s high feed costs, heifers should be on every dairy producer’s radar, and it is important to make the most of your heifer-breeding programs by benchmarking and using key performance indicators to monitor your success. PD

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King Smith
Western Manager of Technical Service Programs
Select Sires Inc.

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