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How to use cow monitoring to improve reproduction and lactation efficiency

Steve Pavelski for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 January 2021

There’s no debate that dairy farming relies on cycles. From the time of day cows are milked and fed to the timing of heats and breeding, everything has a time and a place.

We manage these cycles with one overriding goal – a profitable lactation cycle.



From a business perspective, if every cow produces more daily milk revenue than the daily cost of maintaining her during lactation, we will maximize her contribution to the bottom line. To optimize her contribution during the current and next lactation, a cow should be dried off on the breakeven day when her milk revenue equals her costs.

With this framework in mind, the key business management issue is how to efficiently get a cow pregnant approximately 260 days before her economic breakeven point. Two parameters enable effective implementation of this approach: the individual cow’s milk production level and the certainty of a successful insemination.

The standards of breeding cows by 100 days in milk (DIM) and targeting a 305-day lactation were set decades ago. Both cow production levels and cow management practices have changed drastically since then. Simply put, long-used lactation lengths and breeding standards may not be feasible for today’s dairies. Technology is meant to enable a more efficient and profitable management of lactations.

By integrating digital technology on-farm, producers can use data to drive cow-specific decisions that improve the certainty of an insemination and overall cow management. With an industry that is constantly improving and setting new records, it’s imperative to update practices to meet new goals and maximize cow potential.

Technology changing the face of reproduction strategies

Breeding is expensive, and missing a heat is even more costly. Yet following strict timed artificial insemination (TAI) protocols to improve reproduction requires exhausting amounts of time and labor. While many herds are implementing TAI very effectively, the operational complexity of managing a TAI program requires management to approach every cow in the herd as an “average” cow rather than attempting to optimize their high-producing cows’ lactation profitability.


Rather than using TAI, monitoring data can save producers time and money by breeding cows off their natural heat cycle instead. Breeding to a natural heat using a monitoring system disturbs the cow’s routine only once versus breeding to a TAI protocol that involves multiple disturbances to her daily routine. In addition to reducing the need for qualified labor’s time, the reduced stress on the cows promotes their well-being and milk production capabilities.

Cow monitoring systems provide real-time, actionable insights to improve heat detection on farms. While there’s a learning curve in the first year of implementation, monitoring data improves reproductive performance and helps producers realize cow potential right out of the gate.

On farms with intensive heat detection methods such as tail chalk, visual observation or both, we can expect a 10% increase in heat detection. Heat detection accuracy greatly increases by monitoring rumination and activity 24 hours a day and seven days a week. In fact, heat detection is so accurate producers don’t have to worry if cows will get pregnant because they can pinpoint the precise time to breed each cow for optimal conception.

By using monitoring data to identify natural cycles, producers can successfully breed the majority of cows without therapeutic intervention. In most herds, only 6% to 25% of cows do not cycle naturally and require intervention. Leveraging the natural heat cycle for the herd majority allows cows to be cows and producers to save money otherwise spent on breeding interventions.

Breeding success is greatly affected by the dry and transition period. With health monitoring, we can increase the health of a herd to lower the percent of cows that need reproductive intervention.

Keeping a close eye on transition period health

Electronic health monitoring allows producers to identify problems that prevent natural cycling. These problems often arise during the transition period, a critical time in cow health.


One of the most impactful implications of electronically monitoring cow health is the system’s ability to identify potential health issues prior to the manifestation of clinical signs. Early intervention allows for quicker recovery time for the cow and enhances her propensity to express estrus and to conceive.

It is not uncommon for herds to see a secondary improvement in reproductive performance two to three months after deploying a monitoring system. The first improvement in reproductive performance is due to the improved heat detection and optimal insemination window, while the subsequent improvement is a result of improved transition health programs that allow more cows to show heats and improve their conception rates.

The ability to objectively determine health issues and estrus behavior also enables early lactation culling and “do not breed” decisions.

Prepartum performance can be affected by dry matter intake (DMI) and mobilization of body fat and calcium before calving, which have a direct effect on postpartum performance. After calving, pen moves or diet changes can negatively impact cows’ productivity and health. Monitoring systems allow you to keep a close eye on each cow year-round and especially during this critical time. By monitoring, you can pinpoint factors negatively impacting cow health, including nutrition, heat stress or overcrowding.

Maximizing cow potential

Every cow is different. To maximize herd potential, management must be tailored to each cow.

By using predictive data to look at individual milk production curves, producers can decide to increase days in lactation of high-producing cows beyond 305 days to get more productive days. Monitoring provides producers the confidence to get cows bred and can add 10, 20, 30 or even more days of lactation to their high-producing animals, increasing the number of productive days in these cows’ lives.

Extending the lactation length allows the cow to reach her full milking potential, putting more money in producers’ pockets. This approach reduces the risk placed on cows by sending them through the transition period more times than needed and, in some cases, negates the distressed dry-off of a high-producing cow.

Many producers start making improvements with heat detection upon implementation of monitoring systems. They can make significant gains in maximizing productive days within two to three years of adopting a monitoring system. Rely on experts from your system supplier to help you leverage your monitoring data to improve your herd management based on the information. Big-picture management decisions don’t occur overnight but, over time, can move the needle on cow productivity and herd reproduction.  end mark

PHOTO: Getty images.

References available from the author upon request. Click here to email an editor.

Steve Pavelski
  • Steve Pavelski

  • Monitoring Success Manager
  • Allflex Livestock Intelligence
  • Email Steve Pavelski