The case for finding open cows with a touch of technology

Brandt Kreuscher for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 October 2016

The reasons for seeking optimal reproductive results in your dairy herd are many. However, given the current dairy economic climate, the financial consequences of poor reproductive performance are even more top-of-mind for most dairy farmers.

Therefore, getting cows pregnant in a timely fashion is of utmost importance because:

1. Pregnancies are valuable. Research suggests that, depending on herd dynamics, the value of each pregnancy ranges from $300 to $600.

2. There’s a cost for delayed or lack of pregnancies. The rule of thumb is that the cost for open days ranges between $3 and $5 a day (more or less) depending on individual farm revenues and expenses.

Also keep in mind that a non-pregnant cow is 7.5 times more likely to be offered a career change than a pregnant cow.

Direct and indirect implications

Of course, the direct costs of delayed pregnancy or failure to achieve pregnancy are easy to explain and generally obvious.

These factors include the cost of extra semen, labor and veterinary expenses. In addition, the dairy must bear the cost of the difference between revenue for a cow culled for non-pregnancy and the cost of her replacement.

What many operations may not have considered is that the opportunity costs of extended days open or increased culling due to poor reproductive performance may be greater than obvious direct costs.

According to researchers at the University of Guelph, the magnitude and source of payback from improved reproductive performance varies among herds but, generally, the greatest single component is marginal milk.

Marginal milk is a result of having a more productive, nearer-peak cow filling in the average slot on the farm. This is reflected in lower herd average days in milk and, over time, increased milk per day per lactating cow in the herd, even though facilities, nutrition and genetics have not changed.

Finding solutions

Fortunately, many dairies have stepped up reproductive programs and turned to monitoring technology with outstanding results.

For instance, more than 35 percent of herds in the Minnesota Dairy Herd Improvement program achieve pregnancy rates above 20 percent. And the six platinum 2015 Dairy Cattle Reproductive Council award recipients attained pregnancy rates between 32 percent and 39 percent.

Animal monitoring technologies that include rumination and activity monitoring have helped dairies advance heat detection and protocol compliance to push performance higher – and consistently reach reproduction benchmarks that most dairies only dreamed of a decade ago.

However, many farms still struggle to identify cows that need to be re-enrolled in a breeding program. This leads to a number of undesirable economic influences due to extra days open and potentially increased culling rates.

Animal monitoring technology is proving to provide answers to this challenge, too.

Lost pregnancy factor

Dairies that have adopted this technology have access to system-generated reports that automatically identify cows that are anestrus and those that have irregular heats to ensure these animals don’t fall through the cracks. However, this is a fairly small segment of the herd on most farms.

More commonly, about 30 percent of pregnancies are lost. These losses can be higher or lower, depending on the dairy and situation.

Estimates range from 3.2 percent to 42.7 percent of pregnancies are lost after the first month, meaning early pregnancy detection – while important – doesn’t always offer a dairy the full picture of reproductive performance.

Without monitoring tools, these losses and the animals they impact usually remain undetected, adding to the herd’s days open. In addition, lost pregnancies also carry a significant cost. Researchers at the University of Florida have found that the average cost of a pregnancy loss was $555.

Average cost of lost pregnancy

With today’s early pregnancy diagnosis tools, animals that lost pregnancies may be classified as pregnant and removed from breeding protocols because the loss was unknown. In other words, the cow was sorted as pregnant but did not retain a viable embryo.

Diagnosing pregnancy early is beneficial for identifying open cows and allowing for re-insemination strategies that will help minimize days open and increase profitability, Andrew Sandeen, Penn State University Extension educator, says.

“However, as more and more herd managers work with these approaches, they are realizing how many of the ‘open’ cows were actually pregnant for a short period of time but lost the pregnancy during early embryonic development – an understandably disturbing realization,” he adds.

There’s a monitoring tool for that

As animal monitoring technology continues to evolve and improve, dairy producers and their management teams are able to fine-tune their skills and find ways to address specific concerns – like more quickly identifying cows that may have lost a pregnancy.

For instance, one new animal monitoring module offers users the ability to assess the probability that a cow is open following insemination by accurately monitoring rumination time combined with her activity.

The algorithms in this particular tool calculate the probability that an animal is pregnant, enabling users to make more timely management decisions. Conversely, the information also helps dairies identify which cows are more likely to be open at a particular time.

Other systems may analyze the data differently but, ultimately, producers who use this technology are able to increase reproductive efficiencies.

This ability gives producers the needed information to make sure target animals are rescheduled for a pregnancy diagnosis and re-enrolled in breeding programs, as needed, on a timely basis. For example, a cow inseminated July 11 was scheduled for a pregnancy diagnosis during the herd’s regular herd health exam Aug. 8.

The system can continually monitor this cow and notify dairy staff if she should be re-bred prior to that exam. Or if the data indicate she’s on track for the regular herd health exam and is diagnosed pregnant at that time, the dairy can still monitor her performance until her pregnancy is reconfirmed 60 days post-insemination – and beyond if deemed necessary.

If she lost the pregnancy prior to a physical exam or other pregnancy diagnosis, the technology gives the dairy the opportunity to make an early judgment and implement any needed health or management interventions to ensure the cow remains in the herd.

“If a pregnancy is lost, every day counts in managing to re-establish pregnancy so that she may continue to have many productive days in the herd,” Sandeen says.  end mark

References omitted but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Brandt Kreuscher is a dairy business manager with Allflex USA - SCR Dairy. Email Brandt Kreuscher.


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