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Reproduction drives dairy profitability

Humberto Rivera Published on 09 February 2012
cows in pen

Dairy producers continue to face a risky financial environment. Expensive feed and stagnant-to-dipping milk prices mandate caution when deciding how money is to be spent.

It’s important to focus attention on getting the most return from every investment, including your reproductive program.

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Reproduction is the driving force behind the profitability of any dairy.

After all, if cows don’t become pregnant, they don’t produce replacements or milk and therefore provide little income for the dairy.

Profitability is also affected when cows do not become pregnant on time. In such cases, average days in milk (DIM) are delayed since few fresh cows are entering the milking herd.

It’s not unusual to see a reduction of 10 pounds of milk or more per cow per day when DIM are pushed to 250 vs milk production for a more “desirable” 170 DIM.

Monitor these parameters

There are many parameters to measure the effectiveness of your dairy’s reproductive program, in addition to days open. But the three to monitor the closest are:

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  1. Pregnancy rate
  2. Heat detection rate
  3. Conception rate

Pregnancy rate should be first to watch. It is defined as the proportion of eligible cows that become pregnant each 21-day cycle.

Pregnancy rate is a risk of success or failure per unit of time and is calculated by dividing the number of pregnancies within a 21-day cycle by the number of eligible cows present during that same 21-day period.

Pregnancy rate is affected by heat detection rate and conception rate. An average rate is 12 to 16 percent – most dairies are very capable of 18 to 20 percent and higher.

Heat detection rate is the percentage of eligible cows inseminated within a given time frame, including animals inseminated following a detected heat or a timed A.I.

This is the easiest of the parameters to influence with training and management attention. If this parameter is below 45 percent, you have huge opportunities to improve.

Conception rate is the total number of pregnant cows divided by the total number of inseminated cows with known outcomes (pregnancies).

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In general, this number doesn’t change quickly unless you have serious management problems that allow a rapid response when properly fixed, in cases such as nutrition or people issues.

According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, 96 percent of the variation in conception rate comes from management factors like heat detection, nutrition and semen handling, and environmental factors like heat stress, etc. The last 4 percent is related to the individual cow and service bull’s genetics.

Dollar impact of improvement

Now that you’ve determined which areas to monitor and why, it’s time to put some figures to your efforts.

The University of Wisconsin’s Repro Money program has developed a mathematical model to help put a value on improving pregnancy rates and, theoretically, the profitability of your dairy’s reproductive program.

The biggest financial advantage is realized by those herds that improve poor reproductive performance; however, this tool enables you to discover what any level of reproductive improvement can yield.

For example, if you start with a 10 percent pregnancy rate and improve it to 15 percent (which is still only average), that gain is worth $141 per cow per year. A gain from 10 percent to 18 percent is worth $207 per cow per year. Multiply those results over 500 or 1,000 cows, and the dollars add up quickly.

At that level of return, it’s easy to see how improving your reproductive performance pays off. You can also see the cost of poorer reproductive performance in these same numbers.

Let’s look at the financial impact of improved reproduction one more way. As noted earlier, heat detection is a key component of pregnancy rate, and is one of the easiest parameters to influence by training people how to better find cows in estrus.

One hour invested in training at $10 an hour will recover a tenfold or higher return from improved reproductive performance.

Each dairy is a universe

Of course important issues like overall goals, protocol compliance, facilities, heat abatement and many other factors impact each dairy’s and individual herd’s reproductive performance.

So it’s important these be considered when evaluating the general effectiveness and profitability of your herd’s reproduction, as well as these factors’ impact on the three key parameters just discussed.

Also keep in mind that data accuracy is essential so you and your management team know you are working with reliable numbers.

Computer programs and people may define these parameters differently, so be sure you know how these numbers are being gathered and interpreted so that you can make the best possible decisions.

Optimal reproductive performance is essential in the best of times, and downright critical when dairies feel financial pressure.

Reproductive success, while not able to counteract or reverse financial challenges like high feed prices, can help improve your overall herd performance and reduce the financial risks associated with poor reproduction. PD

PHOTO:Pregnancy rate should be first to watch. It is defined as the proportion of eligible cows that become pregnant each 21-day cycle. Photo by PD staff.

Humberto Rivera is a reproduction field specialist with Accelerated Genetics. Email Humberto Rivera.

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