MILK production is up but fertility is down - it must be the semen company's fault. Wrong.
Research in the United States (because we cannot afford to do anything similar here) has found that 96 per cent of the variation in conception rates comes from management factors such as heat detection, nutrition, semen handling, artificial insemination (AI) technique and environmental factors such as heat stress. Only 4 per cent is related to the individual cow's or the mating sires' genetics.
There is a huge range between the conception rates of Australian dairy herds and farmers need to focus on what the successful herd managers are doing right and follow their example. Here are some things to think about while preparing for the next mating period.
1. Measure and know the numbers. Farmers can't find their way out of trouble until they know their position. Certain basic measures of reproduction must be known: submission rate, non-return rate and conception rate. In addition, things such as heat detection rate, calving patterns for first calvers and the whole herd should also be known. The quickest way to get this information is via a Fertility Focus Report -- ask a herd improvement service provider or vet how to get one.
2. Heat detection. Cows can't be bred if the farmer does not know when they are on heat. There is a narrow window of time during which a viable number of sperm need to meet up with a fertile egg in order for fertilisation to take place. Good dairyfarmers focus on finding cows in heat and getting them AI'd when the time is right. There are a range of excellent heat detection methods available today and a smart dairyfarmer will invest in these. Heat detection aids are an investment, not an expense.
3. Nutrition, nutrition and more nutrition. The industry is really only just beginning to understand the massive effect that nutrition has on cow fertility. The relationship between feeding and pregnancy cannot be overstated. Get good advice, preferably from someone independent who is not selling the feed products.
4. Employee training is really important. Herds are getting bigger and dairyfarmers are having to engage more staff but not all of them will have any idea about reproduction. If heat detection is an issue, ask a semen re-seller to come out to the farm and talk to employees about how to recognise signs of heat. If employees on a farm have no idea, that is not a reflection on them -- it is a reflection on the farmer's skills as a manager.
5. Cow comfort and good facilities. Cows that are experiencing stress will suffer reproductively. Take a fresh look at handling facilities and evaluate if they are adequate for both the cow and the AI technician. Perhaps it is time that the shaky drop rail is upgraded or some kind of non-slip surface is installed for cows to walk on in the shed. Asking any AI technician to AI cows while perched on a plank of wood balanced between two 44-gallon drums is stupid -- and yes, it really does still happen. Good facilities are conducive to improved conception rates.
6. How is heifer raising on the farm? Reproductive success starts long before the first calvers come into the milking shed. Heifers should not be neglected and research has shown that ensuring good heifer growth rates is an integral part of producing well-grown dairy cows that can produce lots of milk. Think about joining dates and try and give heifers an advantage by breeding them to calve before the main cow herd to give them every chance to re-conceive.
7. New technologies and new information. The dairy industry is constantly changing and new technologies are coming along all the time -- farmers should ensure that they are staying current on issues such as sexed semen, genomics and new AI synchronisation programs. Don't just keep doing the same things that have been done for the past 20 years. For example, there have been massive leaps in the way AI synchronisation protocols are now done. But good advice is needed so make sure that the people that know the most about breeding -- the local herd improvement service provider and vet -- are consulted. Getting off the farm may be a hard task with so much to do but make time to improve knowledge, it is well worth it.
8. AI technique and semen handling. Successful farmers pay great attention to detail. Make sure that the staff who do AI are well trained and that their performance is measured. If using a professional AI technician, make sure that they are NHIA-accredited and ask their employer if they monitor performance. Semen handling is important and poor performance in this area can have a hugely negative effect on conception rates.
Want to read more stories like this?
Sign up to receive our e-newsletter delivered fresh to your email in-box twice a week.