As an industry, we talk a lot about certain cows or groups of cows being “hard breeders.” Yet, rarely do we talk about the fact that, often, human decisions are the reason cows aren’t able to become pregnant efficiently, not necessarily the A.I. program.
It’s possible your herd management protocols might be creating infertile cows.
Identify genetic traits that align with profitability. To operate a dairy, you need pregnancies happening quickly and consistently. Therefore, traits supporting fertility are critical to your business. It would be a mistake to ignore them in your genetic plan for future generations.
Direct traits for enhanced fertility include Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR), Cow Conception Rate (CCR) and Heifer Conception Rate (HCR). Other correlated genetic traits include cow health influencers, such as Somatic Cell Score (SCS) or Transition Health. Healthy cows are more likely to become pregnant cows.
Another genetic approach to enhanced fertility is crossbreeding. Dairy producers need to ask themselves if the reason for not crossbreeding is a business or emotional decision. For many herds, crossbreeding will inject a much-needed high dose of fertile genetics. A three-way cross using, for example, Holstein-Jersey-Norwegian Red can continuously bring in production performance and fertile genetics.
2. Maternity Pen and Reproductive Tract Health
The maternity pen is the start of the productive cycle and an unforgiving place for human error. Complications here can establish breeding problems that could remain with the cow through the current and future lactations. Protect repro health with every calving pen protocol to maintain a fertile herd.
Provide employees with professional calving assistance training. The goal should be unassisted calvings to avoid causing unnecessary trauma. However, maternity pen personnel should know the signs of abnormal calving and how to correctly assist if needed. Understand how the danger of pulling calves too early or incorrectly can impact a cow’s ability to easily become pregnant again.
Unsanitary maternity pens and equipment can cause retained placentas, metritis and endometritis. This results in cows taking longer to start cycling post-calving and reduced conception rates. Take every precaution to avoid contamination and infection at calving. Excellent equipment hygiene, regular sanitation in this area and timely re-bedding of the maternity pen are all critical, since newly fresh cows have a suppressed immune system.
Beef-on-dairy crossbred calf sales are creating another revenue stream for dairy producers. However, an incorrect beef-on-dairy strategy can cause a fertility decline in the herd. Don’t let hidden costs of the wrong beef-on-dairy program consume crossbred calf sale premiums.
Just like dairy sires, some beef sires produce large calves and an increased likelihood of calving problems. However, beef-on-beef calving data, or expected progeny difference (EPD), is not an accurate prediction for beef-on-dairy calvings. Beef sires identified as calving ease sires by beef industry EPDs might still result in difficult calvings when used on dairy cows. Some beef sires will create crossbred calves with bulkier shoulders than what dairy cow frames can easily pass. Use beef sires who have calving ease data for beef-on-dairy calvings.
Furthermore, beef product is often used on a herd’s mature cows. Don’t exacerbate infertility on older cows because of large crossbred calves and dystocia. Beef-on-dairy sire calving ease should be matched for dairy animal age and breed.
4. Body Condition and Diet
Don’t prompt anovulatory cows through diet. Optimize nutrition for reproduction in addition to production. Cows with a negative energy balance (NEB) when they reach your voluntary waiting period (VWP) will have a more difficult time conceiving.
In addition to high production levels causing NEB, over-conditioned pre-fresh groups are also highly susceptible to NEB post-calving. When an overweight cow calves, she loses weight more rapidly at the start of her lactation than an ideal conditioned cow because she has more weight to lose. Having more weight to lose will put the overweight cow in extreme NEB.
Alternatively, avoiding low body condition scores (BCS) is equally as important. An underconditioned cow is unlikely to show heats.
Consider having a third party perform regular BCS audits on your herd. Include an analysis of breeding age heifers, springer heifers, dry cows, pre-fresh/fresh cows and the lactating herd. Body condition during each phase of a cow’s life cycle will impact her reproductive ability.
Appropriate pre-fresh diet management, such as a pre-fresh DCAD diet, will support successful calvings, therefore reducing the rate of uterine infection and allowing a quicker return to ovulation.
5. Health and Comfort
Anything you can do to reduce stress, increase comfort and support overall health will benefit reproductive results.
- Overcrowding and rough/loud handling: Both will trigger stress and make cows less likely to show heats.
- Pre-/post-fresh cow management: Review protocols and proactively monitor these groups to avoid metabolic diseases which will ultimately affect the speed cows will be ready to breed again.
- Parlor protocols: Udder health has been correlated with conception rates. Milkers should be continuously refreshed on parlor protocols to reduce infection and disease transmission risk.
- Heat stress: When programming heat abatement systems, ensure these turn on at the correct temperature. Cows are highly sensitive to heat stress. The rise in internal body temperature disrupts several reproductive processes, including oocyte development.
- Disease control: Infections can lead to infertility, reduced conception rates and early pregnancy loss. Review vaccination protocols and biosecurity rules to limit herd potential for disease exposure.
Nearly every cow management decision and human touchpoint on your dairy can influence your herd’s reproductive performance.
Provide employees with the resources they need to do their job, both physical tools and knowledge from professional training. Help them understand why their work has a tremendous impact on a cow’s life cycle.
A single incident creating a fertility problem usually has a negative influence beyond the current lactation. A high-days-open cow is more likely to become overconditioned at the end of her lactation. In turn, this can create a vicious cycle for the rest of the cow’s career with calving problems, stressed transitions and metabolic incidents.
Mandy Schmidt. Genetic Services Specialist – ABS Global.