A proactive approach to cow reproductive health resulted in a 31 per cent increase in the six-week-in-calf rate in a pilot project undertaken on 10 Victorian dairy farms last year.
Erik Thompson from VikingGenetics told the Herd 17 conference they were excited about the program, which they planned to offer to farmers this year.
"You get more cows pregnant earlier in the season, you get a higher percentage of daughters from AI (artificial insemination) bulls, you get a lot more AI calves, therefore a lot more AI heifers," he said. "You get improved genetics for the future, less work and money spent on cows with a low chance for pregnancy ù so you are not wasting money on cows that just aren't going to get in calf anyway."
All of the farmers who had participated in the pilot project in 2016 were planning to continue this year, he said.
The Repro Project investigated two approaches: On-demand approach: rectal investigation carried out on only non-cycling cows. Proactive approach: two rectal investigations carried out on all cows before the start of joining.
The on-demand approach resulted in a 7 per cent increase in the six-week-in-calf rate to AI on the farms compared with the previous year, while the proactive approach resulted in a 31 per cent increase.
The proactive approach identified a high number of cystic cows in the herds that were able to be treated before AI began.
The project was initiated by Swede Magnus Johansson, who worked as an AI technician at Echuca, Victoria, during the 2015 spring insemination period.
Mr Johansson was frustrated by the lack of systematic fertility services in Australia that were used where he worked in Sweden. He contacted Anna Norgren at Viking Genetics Australia to look at developing a fertility service in Australia.
This project was developed as a pilot study to compare the two different approaches to organised reproductive services.
At the rectal surveys, cows were classified into five categories as shown in Table 1. After the examinations, all cows were given individual recommendations as shown in Table 2.
Pregnancy was checked 42 days after the insemination and six-week-in calf rate calculated for the two groups.
The herds were split into two groups: the first group taking the more traditional, on-demand approach (four herds) and the second group taking the proactive approach (six herds). The first group had a higher average herd size, but in the previous season, the two groups had similar average six-week-in-calf rates.
The results of the examination of cows in the first group (on-demand) showed a high proportion of cystic cows and a low proportion of AI-ready cows.
This was to be expected at these cows were ones that had been identified as non-cycling cows.
The data also revealed big variations between the four herds. (See Table 3.)
The results of the examination of cows in the second group (proactive approach ù all cows checked) also revealed a high proportion of cystic cows and problem cows. In fact, it showed that on average only 37 per cent of cows in the herds were ready for AI. But this also varied widely between the herds ù from a low of 28 per cent to a high of 45 per cent. (See Table 4.)
Treatment After the first examination the cows in the second group were treated depending on their diagnosis. Cows treated after the first or second pre-check were considered "cured" at the start of the insemination period.
Problem cows were expected to be less fertile and non-cycling and do not AI cows were recommended to not start in AI, due to low expected pregnancy rate.
In the second group, 134 of the 778 cows that were investigated at the beginning of the project were culled before the end of the six-week in calf period.
The high number indicates that several "carry over" cows were included in this group.
The treatments undertaken resulted in more cows in the second group being AI ready ù to an average 67 per cent. This still varied between the herds but even the worst herd ended up with 47 per cent of cows ready to AI, while the best had 88 per cent. (See Table 4.)
The in-calf rate improved significantly for the second group compared with the previous season ù with the average six-week-in-calf rate lifting from 44 per cent to 75 per cent. (See Table 5.)
The in-calf rate also improved for the first group but not to the same extent.
The researchers surmised this was due in part to the cows only being identified as problematic after the start of the AI period, giving the treated cows less time to recover.
The study also showed the in-calf rate for the cows "cured" as a result of being identified as having a problem and being treated for it was the same as the cows identified as being ready for AI after the first examination. (See Table 6.)
Mr Thompson said the project proved the value of a proactive approach to reproductive health in cows.
For a 300-cow herd, he estimated the cost of the program at $5000 (about $15 per cow), but the benefits, including costs saved on drugs and the increase in the number of AI heifer calves, were estimated at $40,000.
Mr Thompson said the program would help farmers better manage their AI decisions.
The cows that were either AI ready or cured could be inseminated with higher-value semen or sexed semen, given the high likely pregnancy rate.
"These are the cows you should be breeding from ù they are the cows without problems," Mr Thompson said. "The next generation from these cows are going to have a lot less of these fertility problems."
The six-week-in-calf rate of problem cows was on average 56 per cent. "This was still a good result ù but they had problems and you would have a chance of breeding more problems into your cows by breeding from those cows," Mr Thompson said. "So you can make the choice. If you wanted more cattle, you would work with those, but you might put them into beef or lesser bulls."
He said the program did involve a lot of work. Mr Johansson did all the examinations but the farm still used their own vets to treat the cows and their own AI technicians for the breeding program and inseminations.
He said a 31 per cent increase in the in-calf rate "almost sounds too good to be true". "If that was semen, everyone would be screaming to get a hold of it," he said.