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Technology, teamwork have Drumgoon Dairy’s pregnancy rates on point

Jaclyn Krymowski for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 June 2021
Rodney Elliott
Rodney, Dorothy and son David

Drumgoon Dairy in Norden, South Dakota, was established by Rodney Elliott; his wife, Dorothy; and their three children in 2006 after emigrating from Northern Ireland.

Experienced dairy farmers, having had a previous 140-cow herd in their native land, this move was prompted by a desire to expand their herd and grow their dairy business.

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When the Elliotts began at Drumgoon, they managed 1,400 cows. But after several expansions, their herd has grown to an over- 6,000-head milking herd made up of crossbreeds and purebred Holsteins. They also have a heifer herd of over 5,000 animals.

Despite having had to adapt to many changes and expansions, they have taken advantage of the opportunity to not only grow but also improve. In 2020, they were honored with the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council’s Gold Award for exceptional reproductive performance. They are proud to say they have 1.9 services per conception with a pregnancy rate between 34% and 35%.

“Repro is our number one strength,” says Rodney Elliott, “and I think it comes from having healthy cows, having a good environment and using technology.”

Adapting with expansion

Up until 2015, all of Drumgoon’s breeding and repro work was done in-house, with lots of A.I. work and a little bit of bull breeding. With that system, they had a pregnancy rate between 23% and 24%.

However, as they expanded their herd that same year with the purchase of 1,000 new heifers, Elliott knew they needed to make some changes and take some of that workload off their staff. He decided to work with their breeding company to eliminate herd bull breeding and make other improvements in their program.

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“Pretty quickly, they started to show us some really good results with what they were doing,” he says, “and [it] simplified our whole system.”

Today, one technician is able to handle all the insemination work for their herd with some assistance from on-farm employees.

“They do a very good job with fresh cows,” says Enrique Correal, Alta Genetics, who has done the breeding work on the dairy for several years. “They provide us with good healthy cows when they enter the A.I. pen, and we get them pregnant as soon as possible.”

In addition to making appropriate changes and outsourcing help as the herd grew, technology has played a large role in making Drumgoon’s reproduction protocol the success it is. Correal agrees, saying this has enabled him, along with the whole Alta team involved, to get a whole overview of the farm from repro to health and help with consultations that help enhance overall reproductive performance.

Role of technology

One of the primary tools Elliott credits is their activity monitoring system. They began using the SCR Heatime system 12 years ago, making them early adopters of the technology.

“Trusting (the system) is a big part of it,” he says, “and making sure that the cow gets bred if it shows activity. I always preach to my guys that the cheapest part of a repro program is probably the semen that you put in the cow. The most expensive part is the semen that you don’t put in the cow.”

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Rodney Elliott

With that, he trains his team to still breed cows when activity levels are sufficient, even if some other herd managers might be a bit hesitant in the same situation.

Their monitoring system also allows them to cherry-pick candidates for their Ovsynch program based on their activity levels. They start with a 70-day voluntary waiting period with a five-day allowance. Each week, cows who fall within that timeframe go into the program and are bred three to five days after their first prostaglandin shot.

“I think 47 percent of our pregnancies are achieved by cows that have completed a timed-A.I. program,” Elliott notes.

As is the trend across many large dairies, Drumgoon incorporates Angus semen into their program. Elliott says this has especially increased in recent months due to having sufficient replacement heifers in the herd. Ordinarily, they will breed their animals to sexed semen three times before using a beef sire. However, Elliott notes that when they are in need of more replacements or have some higher-end cows, they will be much more generous in how many sexed semen services they provide.

“I think it’s very important for dairy herds today that you only create as many replacements as you need,” he says. “If you end up having a few less than you need, it’s probably to your benefit rather than a problem because it’s so expensive to raise a heifer, especially with these high feed prices.”

Having a reliable team

Team development and accountability are two other key attributes in Drumgoon’s reproduction program. Having outsourced their A.I. breeding has helped increase accountability, according to Elliott. A single person responsible for the task, with help from a relief technician, means the responsibility is in one place. When he dealt with a larger repro staff, Elliott recalls it being much easier for things to be overlooked on the assumption someone else would take care of it.

“[Now] we have one guy, and if he has a problem, we have systems in place to identify that problem pretty quickly.”

This has also eliminated the inefficient need to retrain people in-house as employees come and go.

Three years antibiotic-free

One interesting aspect of the farm is that, for three years now, the herd has been completely antibiotic-free. Elliott says when they made that decision, they were told it would have a detrimental effect on their reproduction and death loss due to handling mastitis. However, the statistics seem to show otherwise. This decision has saved them between $70 and $100 a day, something that’s helped them improve other areas.

“We spent a little bit of that money on prevention rather than cure,” he says. “I think it’s been a valuable lesson for us.”

Some of that is thanks to the farm team and the investment the business has made in them. Having a staff of about 55, Elliott and his family have decided to prioritize building management skills, team building and identifying strengths. Each week, management has weekly meetings and undergo professional training.

“It’s all about a team effort,” Correal agrees, “us as a team at Alta and what they do with the cows. They’re a great family to work with; I really enjoy working with them and it’s one of our top herds.” end mark

PHOTO 1: Rodney Elliott, his wife, Dorothy, and their son David operate Drumgoon Dairy in Norden, South Dakota.

PHOTO 2: Rodney Elliott says “ … the cheapest part of a repro program is probably the semen that you put in the cow. The most expensive part is the semen that you don’t put in the cow.” Photos courtesy of Midwest Dairy.

Jaclyn Krymowski is a freelancer based in Ohio.

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