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Use data to monitor reproductive performance

Conrad Spangler Published on 08 June 2010

The 2009 dairy industry crisis caused everyone to re-think previously held dogmas, analyze all inputs for value and return on investment and seek alternatives to business as usual.

When I started in a veterinary practice in June 2009, one of the clients I inherited was struggling as everyone else and even remarked, “You picked a heck of a time to start in this business.” Thus began my challenge to improve dairy profitability during tough economic times. One area of focus was reproductive performance.

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As I embarked on analyzing the data for this 3,000-cow Holstein herd, it was difficult to identify areas of opportunity in the reproductive program.

The big three reproductive parameters of most importance to me are: conception rate (number of pregnancies divided by number of inseminations with known outcomes for a given time frame); 21-day pregnancy risk (number of pregnancies divided by the number of cows eligible to become pregnant in a 21-day period); and palpated pregnancy rate (number of pregnancies diagnosed at herd check divided by the number of cows presented for early pregnancy diagnosis).

On this herd, conception rates were running 38 percent, annual pregnancy rate was 24 percent and palpated pregnancy rates were 69 to 77 percent. Based on this data, reproductive performance did not appear to be a major bottleneck in the profitability of the dairy.

Monthly, we run a data analysis that includes a variety of reproductive parameters, which may allow us to identify problems early. This data report includes many reproductive parameters that can be easily obtained from Dairy Comp 305. Conception rate by service, conception rate by breeding technician, conception rate by breeding code, total conception rate, average days to first service, average days open and percent of cows over 150 days in milk and not pregnant are all available.

By typing “Guide” into the command line of Dairy Comp 305, a user can choose the “Reproduction” tab and quickly obtain the answers to 29 questions regarding the reproductive management and performance of a herd. Additionally, after selecting a report, the user can further define the search by using the “Options” tab in the upper right hand corner of the screen. This can allow a user to evaluate the data for a specific date range or lactation.

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We also use the Dairy Wellness Plan Manager software to evaluate the percent of cows pregnant by three and six cycles. Finally, after every herd check, we tally the pregnancies to calculate the palpated pregnancy rate for that day, and that data is then stored for use in the monthly data analysis.

After these results are compiled monthly, the owner of the dairy and I meet after herd check to discuss strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats that the data may illuminate.

On this particular dairy, month after month, reproduction parameters were steadily strong. Much of this dairy’s reproductive success is attributed to a breeder and his family that have been working with this owner for 28 years. As 2009 progressed, reproductive parameters stayed strong, but the dairy industry and the financial situation of dairies continued to deteriorate.

The opportunity

Herd checks at this dairy were not particularly fun for me. Regular weekly checks consisted of fresh checks that centered around days in milk to determine uterine health, no heat checks for cows past 75 days in milk and not bred, early preg checks (36 to 49 days carried calf), missed heat checks for cows checked the two weeks previously and not bred and 180-day gestation re-confirmations.

We only checked half the pens each week. If a cow was open at the early pregnancy check, she was given a shot of prostaglandin if she had a corpus luteum; and enrolled in Ovsynch if she did not. Additionally, some of the pens on Ovsynch were ovsynched on Friday and others on Saturday so that the breeder would not have to breed too many cows in a given day. All of these cows included on the herd check list resulted in long herd checks, checking cows of questionable value, increased wear and tear on my arms and an increased veterinary bill.

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Additionally, if cows were checked open with a corpus luteum and administered prostaglandin, but did not show a heat, it would be 14 days before they were checked again, increasing days open. I knew of all these facts when I took over the health management of this herd, but I was adhering to the old mantra of, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”

As the year progressed, the owner came to me and asked if I saw a way that his operation could save money. I replied I thought there was opportunity to decrease the amount of cows checked and veterinary time without hurting his reproductive performance.

I proposed a complete Presynch/Ovsynch/Resynch program that eliminated fresh checks, no heat checks and missed heat checks. Additionally, this herd has an employee that is good at palpating and able to perform the re-confirmation checks, so these cows were eliminated as well.

At first, I was hesitant to recommend these changes, not because of the revenue my practice may lose but rather because of the strong reproduction performance that could be lost. The owner was also a little hesitant for this reason, but since he kept good records, we analyzed the herd check data after every visit, and we evaluated performance in monthly data analyses, so we would know relatively quickly if repro performance started to take a turn for the worse.

Results

These changes resulted in going from every-week herd checks of half the pens to herd checks every other week of all the pens. This change has not allowed us to detect open cows earlier, but it has ensured that all open cows are bred 10 days after an open diagnosis and has guaranteed every cow has been inseminated at least once by 85 days in milk ( See Figure 1 ).

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Additionally, our herd check list was decreased from about 250 animals every week to about 150 animals every other week, resulting in quicker, more efficient herd checks. Thus far, reproductive performance parameters have stayed steady, but we know we must continue to closely monitor the data to objectively evaluate the implications of this management change.

Most dairymen have a long-term vision regarding the future of their dairy and the dairy industry. The potential symbiotic relationship formed by a veterinary clinic and its dairy clients, as illustrated in this example, can be strengthened through objective decision making, especially during trying times. PD

Dr. Conrad Spangler is a veterinarian with Circle H Headquarters LLC, a provider of veterinary, laboratory, DHIA and research service to dairies and associated industry.

Conrad Spangler
  • Conrad Spangler

  • Veterinarian
  • Circle H Animal Health
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