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Reproduction: One of the six key elements to profitability

Kevin Jones Published on 17 January 2014
Everyone in the dairy industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief. The drought-induced feed prices are ending, and new-crop corn and beans are flowing to the dairies at substantially lower prices.

However, feed costs will still be double what they were just a few years ago, while milk prices are only up 30 percent. Margins will continue to be tight, and management must find every opportunity to maximize performance in order to increase margins and profits. One of the key elements to profitability on the dairy is reproduction.

Outstanding reproduction maximizes milk production per cow by lowering days in milk and keeping a higher percentage of the herd at their peak. Culling is also impacted as herds can lower their reproductive culls, thus allowing opportunity for heifer and dairy sales.



As more calves are available for sale, producers can focus on improving the quality of the herd. Further, feed efficiency can improve due to higher milk production and fewer stale cows in the herd.

All in all, depending on the current reproductive numbers of the herd, there can be $1 to $2 per hundredweight added to the bottom line by taking the reproductive program to elite status.

There are five main fundamentals that determine the quality of the reproductive program: transition, nutrition, cow comfort, heat detection and insemination. All are of equal importance.

Transition is the key to many facets of herd performance. An elite transition program maximizes production, reproduction and feed efficiency while minimizing body condition loss and early culls. Transition starts in the last month of the dry period, and it is likely the most important ration on the dairy.

The close-up ration and the number of days cows are on this ration are critical for a smooth transition. A flawless transition program vaults cattle into production by keeping intakes as high as possible, both pre-calving and post-calving.


High intakes ensure low incidence of ketosis, which is associated with rapid weight loss. Though all cows lose some weight in the first 20 days of lactation, excessive weight loss is directly correlated with low reproductive performance. By maximizing intakes in early lactation, cows should begin to get to a positive energy balance by 20 days in milk.

The three keys to a great transition are a properly balanced close-up ration, the number of days on that ration and cow density in the close-up pen. Cows should be on the close-up ration for at least 21 days, while first-calf heifers should be on for 28 days.

Research has shown no ill effects of leaving cattle on the close-up ration for more than 30 days. Research has also shown the importance of “undercrowding” in the close-up pen. The best overall performance is achieved when density is at 100 percent or less for the pen.

This is the area often neglected on dairies. Most transition pens and facilities were designed for less cows than are now flowing through them.

The dairy nutritionist has a key role in the performance of the reproductive program, starting with the close-up ration and continuing to the lactating ration leading up to breeding.

Getting the cow to calve with no metabolic problems, go on to a lactating ration with no digestive issues and increase intake fast enough to minimize body condition loss is quite a complicated balancing act. Making all of these transitions smoothly is critical to elite performance.


While the main nutritional emphasis should be on a properly balanced ration, there are a few ingredients available to enhance reproduction. Vitamin E in combination with selenium has shown to help reproductive performance. Organic selenium or selenium yeast has been a major improvement over the inorganic options. Organic copper, zinc and manganese also have shown positive results for reproduction.

Omega-3, a very popular supplement in human nutrition, has shown excellent results in dairy cattle reproduction. Omega-3 helps with pregnancy retention and lowers early embryonic death. Fish meal was probably the first product to deliver Omega-3 to dairy rations.

After fish meal became too expensive for rations, flaxseed and fish oil protected in bypass fats have become options for nutritionists and producers. Algae is a relatively new but promising development in Omega-3.

Keeping with the theme of high intakes to minimize body condition loss and maximize milk production is cow comfort. Cow comfort may not be at the top of most lists of critical elements of elite reproductive programs. However, in order for a highly productive dairy cow to operate at maximum efficiency, she needs to lie down 12 to 15 hours each day.

Providing a comfortable surface for her to lay and chew her cud is vital for top performance. Remember, elite performance is caused by lack of stress, not a cause of stress. Uncomfortable resting areas cause cows to stand more, which takes away nutrients from production and reproduction. Excess standing also contributes to hoof problems, which can affect heat detection.

The human element comes into play in the next vital step to improving reproductive performance. Heat detection is the most common hole in many breeding programs. There have been numerous programs developed to aid or eliminate heat detection.

There are plenty of Ovsynch protocols to choose from. The question is which heat-detection method will bring the most return for the dollars spent? All of these have a cost, with some being much more expensive than others.

Some of the most successful herds have very simple and cost-effective programs in place to improve heat detection. Prostaglandin once per week with diligent heat detection is used on one herd that averages around a 30 percent pregnancy rate.

That is a very high return on investment. Don’t forget, the highest-quality follicles are formed during the dry period. Programs which try to utilize these early follicles will be the most efficient. Waiting to begin breeding until 70 days completely wastes the opportunity to use these high-quality follicles.

Employee training is a critical key to improving both heat detection and insemination efficiency. Outside breeding services usually provide their technicians with constant training. Dairies with on-farm breeders need to do the same. Training and retaining employees is – and will continue to be – vitally important to maximize the performance in all areas of the dairy.

One relatively new development that could help in reproduction is early pregnancy diagnosis. Detecting open cows at 25 to 30 days and getting them back on the breeding protocol can improve pregnancy rates significantly.

Ultrasound has been used successfully for a while. Milk and blood pregnancy tests are available now and getting more use. These are just a few tools to improve your reproductive performance.

Most readers will probably notice that a lot of time was spent on herdsmanship items and very little time on breeding protocols and the actual breeding. That is because it is impossible to have outstanding reproductive performance if the events leading up to breeding are subpar.

That would be like ignoring good crop production practices and expecting the inoculant to manufacture top-quality silage. The transition, cow comfort and nutrition make or break the reproduction program.

Elite reproductive status is key to maximizing the potential of the herd. Like most key factors in dairy production, there are many fundamentals that are involved in the performance of reproductive programs. Failure in one area will result in less-than-expected performance. All of the key factors have to be accounted for in order to excel. PD

Kevin Jones is a nutritionist with Ghost Hollow Consulting. He can be reached by email .