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Vet detective: Solving the case of declining conception rates

Carie M. Telgen for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 October 2016

I’m a cop show fanatic – NCIS, NCIS: LA, NCIS: NOLA, Castle, Hawaii 5-0, CSI. You name it, I watch it. When I was recently asked to write in Progressive Dairyman’s “I Belong To” segment, one of the questions was: If you were not a veterinarian, what would you be?

Obviously, I said a private investigator or detective … then I realized that on a day-to-day basis, I already am. Instead of solving murders or thwarting national security issues, I help my clients find the holes in their operations so they may improve a specific situation or become, overall, more productive and profitable.

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Long gone are the days of “fire engine” veterinary medicine. Most of our clients can bottle their own cows, treat their own retained placentas and even handle some of the abnormal calvings. And pretty much every client can recognize when they are having a massive respiratory or mastitis outbreak.

The more difficult piece comes when there is a smoldering problem that, when submersed in the situation on a daily basis, is unapparent to the dairy. One advantage a veterinarian has is that we visit on a regular basis, so we understand the overall condition of various aspects on the dairy but are not necessarily there on a daily basis to be preoccupied by the day-to-day activities.

This provides the dairy with a fresh set of eyes to help detect a festering or even unapparent problem.

I currently am dealing with a case on a client’s dairy that has taken a team approach to solve. This 400-cow dairy had been running a pregnancy rate of around 25 percent on a consistent basis. Over the last six months, the conception rate had been consistently declining, and it seemed that it was a struggle to have more than 20 percent of the cows or heifers pregnant on herd check day.

As the veterinarian who was getting sick of saying “open, OvSynch,” it was time to start the investigation. The first question in my mind has always been: “What’s changed?” Did we change the timing of our OvSynch shots?

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Did we change who was breeding the cows? Did we change semen companies? It seems as though when asking these questions, we often get, “Nothing’s changed. We’ve done the same thing for the last X years.”

When the original line of questioning doesn’t get us the answer we want, it’s time to start digging deeper. Unlike a TV show murder, we are dealing with biology and a very intricate and complex system when investigating issues on a dairy. Things are ever-changing, and very little is cut and dry.

When evaluating a perceived problem on the dairy, it is crucial to start at the beginning. In this case: Where is the semen coming from? Is it young sires or proven bulls? Sexed or conventional semen? What is the condition of the semen tank? Have you measured the liquid nitrogen yourself? When did you measure it?

The first time I measured the tank, there was only 5 centimeters of nitrogen in it. Less than 48 hours after a refill, the level had already dropped 17 centimeters. Although this isn’t the only issue on this farm, it had to be a contributing factor.

What an easy fix. Within five minutes of me measuring the liquid nitrogen, the owner already had a new tank ordered.

From the point source of the semen, it was time to next evaluate the people. How is the semen being handled? Have we changed the water in the water bath recently? Ever? Is the water bath heating to the correct temperature?

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What is the condition of the breeding guns? Have they ever been cleaned? What is the length of time the semen is out of the tank before it gets into the cow? What is the timing on our OvSynch shots?

How many cows is the technician trying to breed at one time? What is the difference in conception rates between breeding technicians?

If everything seems in line from the semen to the tank, to handling, to breeding, then it’s time to look at the cows. This often involves looking at the records. How are the cows milking? Are the cows heat stressed? Overcrowded? Which cows are suffering from low conception? Is it even across all lactations?

Are cows responding to the hormone shots appropriately? For a reasonable fee, we were able to measure progesterone levels to ensure the cows were responding to the hormone shots as expected. What has changed as far as nutrition goes?

Bringing in the nutritionist is key to understanding ration changes. What has changed in quality and quantity, and in this case, what level of mycotoxins are present in the feed and how do they interact?

Although many of these steps are happening at once, it really comes down to approaching these cases logically. Unfortunately, when we get answers to some or all of these questions, it takes some time to see results after adjustments are made. Oftentimes, multiple changes were made at once, so it may be difficult to determine which changes had the most impact.

Unlike a police show investigation, there isn’t always a pretty timeline to follow with presumed suspects. Because many of the smoldering issues on a dairy are complex, it is worth bringing in the other stakeholders who work with the dairy.

I’m fortunate in that I have a good relationship with the nutritionists on the dairies I work with. With a team approach, we are able to effectively and efficiently evaluate everything, from the records to the semen tank to mycotoxins to the shot schedules.

In this specific case of declining reproduction, or in other cases such as increasing somatic cell counts, for example, there are multiple suspects and quite possibly multiple culprits. It’s critical to ask questions, and a lot of them.

Assumptions get you nowhere. Most seasoned practitioners, including myself, have learned this the hard way. Tackling these cases in a logical fashion will ensure that you have covered all the bases and reach some effective changes efficiently.

I’m also a firm believer in bringing in the other stakeholders on the farm. Few detectives solve cases completely on their own. For the betterment of the dairy, it’s in everyone’s best interest to set egos aside and work together to help solve the case.  end mark

Carie M. Telgen
  • Carie M. Telgen

  • Battenkill Veterinary
  • Bovine P.C.
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