Archive for Dairy Cattle Fertility

Keep Your Mind Open But Not Your Cows

For generations dairy cattle breeders have had reasons to explain why their cows did not quickly conceive or why the show cows needed to stay open and then calve at a particular time of the year in order to look their best for the show season. Well those are not reasons. They are excuses. We buy equipment, use drug therapy, manage groups, ask the vets to perform miracles and yes even lose sleep in attempts to raise our herd’s conception and pregnancy rates and lower our day’s open and extra days in the dry pen. But then we tell ourselves and fellow breeders that at only 5% heritability there is nothing we can do about genetically improving fertility in our dairy cattle.

If it was anything else, like a broken tractor, we’d go about getting it repaired even though it was a costly undertaking. Enhancing the genetics of dairy cattle fertility however falls into that ineffective area where –  we keep doing things the same old way but expect different results. The truth is we must do things differently. Until we revamp the genetics of the dairy cows, we can not expect to reduce the costs and lost revenue associated with infertility.

What Oman Has Shown Us

Mention the name Oman to a Holstein breeder and you can expect a reaction.  He is categorized as either the best sire to come along in years or he has ruined the breed.  This icon does not inspire fence sitters. On the like side both Don Bennick (Read More – North Florida Holsteins: Aggressive, Progressive and Profitable!) and Chris Buchner (who I recently visited with at Elmwold Farms) extol Oman’s virtues. Don’s favourite cow is an Oman daughter.  Chris put it this way – “We just loved our Omans. Sure they would not win a show but the Omans did it for us as we are in the business of efficient profitable production measured by maximizing fat and protein in the tank per cow per day of course at reasonable input costs’.  This raises the question “Does function follow form or does form follow function?”.  For Don and Chris, it is form that follows function

Oman did many things right when it comes to fertility. Calves are born easily, able to be productive cows before two years of age, able to breed back quickly while yielding a high volume of solids and able to do it year after year. And they do it in any environment. Oman showed us that calving ease, reproduction and longevity can all fit into a package and that cows do not have to be tall, dairy, flat boned or angular. In fact what Oman did was to show that there are genetic differences between sires when it comes to female fertility and it stimulated breeders to measure all traits independently instead of trying to define the model perfect cow.  One size does not fit all.

Female Fertility

Both phenotypic and genetic trends for female fertility have spiralled downwards as production increased in the past forty years. We put our focus on milk production and picture perfect conformation, using what is often called a combined production and type index. But the amount and quality of data captured and stored relating to female reproduction has been sadly lacking. For the milking herd that situation has been reversed in the past half decade due in part to the great expansion in herd management software programs with the data uploaded to central data bases where genetic analysis and evaluations are performed. But the same can not be said for heifer information.  Any data that does exist for heifers remains on farm so, except in education or research herds, we can not correlate, on a population basis, the heifer stage of development with lifetime performance.

Where once we relied on what we called “cow sense” we now have genetic evaluations, for cows and bulls, for the following traits that correlate well with female fertility:

Calving Ease
For years breeders felt that calves had to be large at birth to develop into large framed cows. Today commercially oriented breeders want live calves that are born unassisted and cows, especially first calvers, that deliver a live calf without assistance. Two genetic indexes are published – one for the birth of the calf (Calving Ease / Calving Ability) and one for the mother’s ability to deliver ( Maternal Calving Ease / Daughter Calving Ability). Sires rated above 7 in the USA or below approximately 97 in Canada for either calving ease index should be avoided unless breeders are prepared to attend and assist the birth. The cost of a difficult calving is significant when you consider the risk of death of calf and mother, vet and drug costs, an anestrous period, a longer time in the dry pen and less yield for both the lactation and lifetime.

Pregnancy Rate – No pregnancy, no calf, no lactation!
That says it all. Getting a pregnancy when a cow is lactating at a high level is no mean feat but is the reality of dairy cattle farming. Sires that rate below +1.0 for Daughter Pregnancy Rate (USA) and 105 for Daughter Fertility (Canada) will not improve the genetic merit of a herd for pregnancy rate.  Correlated positively with sire ratings for Daughter Fertility in Canada is Body Condition Score (BCS). Correlated negatively is Dairy Form (USA) and Angularity (Canada). Bulls that have a rating above 105 for BCS have daughters that get pregnant whereas bulls above average for Dairy Form and Angularity are more difficult to get in calf. Using all these indexes assists breeders to get the overall picture so wise decisions can be made when selecting sires to use.

Length of Life
Some breeders prefer to select only for Productive Life (USA) or Herd Life (Canada) instead of selecting for the fertility traits. Additional factors beyond fertility go into calculating the length of herd life including SCS and udder depth. Therefore selecting for longevity may not get the boost in female fertility a breeder may be looking for. Again, as with the other indexes sires will need to have high ratings for Productive Life (over +3) and Herd Life (over 105) to positively impact the genetic merit of a herd.

Genomic evaluations
have been a major step forward in ranking bulls for female fertility traits.  Accuracies of genomic indexes are more than double what they were with Parent Averages alone. The general recommendations on using genomic sires applies when addressing daughter fertility – use many sires not just one or two.

So what is improved female fertility worth?

A definitive answer may not be available, but considering that for the average cow it starts when she is bred as a heifer and finishes when she has completed about three lactations. This, on average, covers about 54 months, and the total can mount up to a considerable amount from loss of revenue and added expense. If improving the genetics for female fertility in a herd could give you an added profit in a cow’s lifetime equivalent to the value of milk for half a lactation would it be worth putting more selection pressure of female fertility? I think it would.

Male Fertility

A.I organizations go to considerable effort to package the semen from each sire so the optimum conception rates can be achieved from that bull. High semen fertility is not a genetic measurement for male fertility but it has a very positive effect on herd profit. Dr Bob Welper of Alta Genetics estimates that in a 500 cow herd using somewhat below average bulls for Sire Conception Rate (SCR) compared to using bulls that are above average for SCR costs the breeder a minimum of $35,000 per year. Having six more pregnancies every twenty-one days, higher herd average production, less semen cost, less labor required and more calves in a year are where the added profits come from.

Perhaps a breeder’s semen tank should have a warning label that reads – “Warning- Semen put in this tank must be above average for conception rate and able to produce fertile female offspring”.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Female fertility can no longer be ignored when selecting sires to use or cows that are to be the mothers of heifer calves. Many tools exist that assist with female reproduction on a farm however the use of genetically inferior animals for female fertility as the parents of the next generation is costing much more than we care to admit. In time there will no doubt be additional female genetic fertility index. The time to start using the current indexes is now. Big dividends await breeders who make the effort to use the current genetic tools for female fertility.

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Fertility: You Get What You Breed For

How often have you heard a 4H leader, FFA member, classifier or show judge say a heifer or cow must have slope from her hips to her pins and be wide in the pins because that’s what we need for good fertility? Yes we have all heard that many times. But is it true? Could it be that the Holstein bloodlines we have selected were poorer for fertility than other bloodlines we left behind half a century ago? And that rump conformation has a low correlation with fertility.

A Colorful Opinion

Something we can all agree on is that the fertility levels in our herds, the world over, are not what breeders would like them to be. I well remember just a year ago when I had a discussion with an old time Jersey breeder. True to form he was telling this Holstein guy that Holstein breeders have ruined the breed. Sure higher butterfat and protein yields and udders much higher off the ground were great moves but why the excessive stature, very flat and deep rear rib and the demand that animals be tall in the front end when nature did not make them that way? “Jersey cows don’t need to have sloping rumps in order to quickly get back in-calf. So why do Holsteins need sloping rumps?” His bottom line was that by going for the tall skinny cow syndrome we have selected against reproductively sound females. His concluding statement was “You are breeding cows not runway models.” Think about it, shorter, rounder cows that may give a little less milk but get in-calf quicker are very likely preferred by milk producers to the tall, deep rear rib, walk uphill ones.

Have we won a Little but Lost a Lot?

Have we selected our Holsteins for the ones that do not quickly get back in-calf? Is it possible that our breeding strategies have taken us in a wrong direction when female fertility is frequently the biggest cow problem that breeders have? (Read more: How Healthy Are Your Cows?)

Certainly over the past half century the average production of Holsteins has doubled. And yes in the past decade we are seeing more outstanding scoring (type classification) cows. And the winners at the shows are super cows with awesome mammary systems.

However whether it is genetics, nutrition or management, our calving intervals are longer and pregnancy rates are perhaps half what they were forty years ago. As well with the need for breeders to focus today on profitability there is the need to replace high cost manual labour with technology and there are moves ahead pointing to less use of drugs and medicines for food safety reasons. Therefore we need to find some way to put reproduction efficiency back into the Holstein cow. And do it by selection rather than by cross-breeding.

Skinny at Odds with Conception

Research and breeder experience has brought to our attention that cows that have above average body conditioning get back in-calf quicker and with less trouble than cows that sacrifice their body condition due to high yields, poor nutrition, inadequate transition cow feeding, poor conformation, … or maybe some combination of all of those.

The Billion Dollar Question

So I ask. “Now that we have sire and cow indexes for Daughter Pregnancy Rate (USA) and Daughter Fertility and Body Condition Score (Canada) are breeders using those indexes in their Breeding Programs?”

Bulls That Get Used

The Canadian Dairy Network, last week, published the thirty Holstein sires with the most daughters registered in Canada in 2012 (Read more: Canadian A.I. Market Share and Most Popular Sires for 2012) accounting for 40% of the total registrations. The remaining 60% were sired by 5900 other bulls. The Bullvine decided to study in some depth the 20 sires with the most registered daughters in Canada in 2012. Those twenty sired 35% of the females registered which should be a good benchmark for where the breed is heading.

Table 1 Sire Comparison – 2012 Daughters Born vs. 2011 Top Sires Available

GroupLPIMilk (kg)Fat (kg / %)Protein (kg / %)CONFMSF&LHerdLifeDFSCSUdepthCA
20 Bulls-most registered 20122075103160 /+.21%41 / +.06%15128105982.894s102
20 Bulls - top in 20112392139367/+.16%55 / +.07%101091081022.874s104

Table 1 compares the twenty sires with the most registered daughters in 2012 to the top twenty Canadian proven LPI sires available to Canadian breeders in 2011. The short answers to the comparisons are: breeders use sires with lower LPIs, less production, more type, less fertility and less Herd Life than the very top LPI sires that A.I. organizations marketed. The shocking truth is that ten of the top twenty most used sires were below average for their Daughter Fertility (DF) indexes. One of those twenty sires had a DF index of only 88 while the top two sires were rated at 107 & 106. High (top 10%) but not overly high.

In case you are wondering if this is a Canadian phenomenon you can refer to a recent Bullvine article (Read more: Top Sires North American Breeders Are Using). The sires with most registered daughters in the USA have the same deficiency in their genetic merit for female fertility. Six of the top ten bulls with the most registered daughters in the middle half of April 2013 were below average for Daughter Pregnancy Rate. Different country same story.

Let’s take the Bull by the Horns

Even though we have only had fertility indexes on bulls for a few years, we as breeders are not using them to genetically improve female fertility in our herds. And it likely goes beyond that – are our A.I. organizations using them when selecting the parents of the next generation of bulls? After all over 90% of the genetic improvement in a herd comes from the sires used.

Fertility Sires

Sires do exist that top the April 2013 North American TPI™ and LPI listings and have fertility ratings in the top 25% of the Holstein breed. Breeders wishing to genetically improve their herds for female fertility should consider the following sires:

Table 2 Top Sires with High Fertility – April 2013

Table 2 Top Sires with High Fertility – April 2013

Click on image for enlargement

Of course we all want to know what we will have to give up to get the female fertility. Further analysis of the twenty-four bulls listed in Table 2 shows that only significant concession would be in ‘show type’ for eight of the twelve top proven sires.  All bulls on this listing have above average indexes for PTAT or CONF.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Half a century of breeding for increased yields, taller and more angularity cows have taken their toll on the fertility in our herds. Female fertility indexes are available for both males and females. With genomics these indexes became much more accurate. Now is the time to put the genetics for female fertility back into our modern Holsteins. It is not a “Perhaps or Maybe”, it is a “MUST”!

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Heat Detection: An Exercise in Fertility

Milk is only Part of the Equation

When it comes to what we have learned about raising and managing dairy cows, you could make milk production a study all on its own.  In many ways we have done exactly that. We have spent so much of our focus on selecting genetics for improved milk production, that now we have fertility issues.  You don’t have a profitable dairy farm if you leave out that ability to cycle reproductively, breed successfully and put healthy calves safely on the ground. These are three vital components to a dairy cow’s productive performance.  Focusing on milk has, over time, disrupted the cow’s ability to do these foundation steps successfully. Today’s cow is out of balance.  We need to get back to the basics.  Which starts with getting pregnant. Which starts with detecting heats.

The Heat is On. We’re not making the grade.

Heat detection is the most important factor in determining the number of pregnancies a herd produces in any period of time. Anything, and everything, you put into being more effective in this area will result in your herd achieving higher fertility ratings. Herd statistics, farm profitability and reproductive efficiency are seriously affected by the level of effectiveness of estrus detection.  The report card from farm to farm varies widely and many are not achieving high marks here. You have to realize it’s still zero whether you miss the pregnancy through fertility or mismanagement.

Do your Homework.

Five ways to affect your heat detection are:

  • Watch their Behavior: Activity measures of estrus. Use observances, pedometers or accelerometers.
  • Measure their Hormones:  Hormone levels such as progesterone can be detected in blood and also in milk.
  • Take their Temperature: Changes temperature indicators can be measured in milk and vaginal mucous.
  • Veterinary Diagnosis: Go to the experts and use palpation or ultrasound scanning.
  • Synchronize Them:  Take out the variable of missed estrus by using a fixed time insemination.

Fertility 101.  Get it right every time.  Go to the head of the class.

Developing excellent visual heat detection technique can make your herd a lot of money – if you can correctly identify the signs of estrous.  If a cow shows three or more of the following signs, there is a good chance she could be in heat.

  1. Standing and mounting behavior
  2. Bawling
  3. Head butting
  4. Chin pressing
  5. Butt sniffing
  6. Bright, alert appearance
  7. Reduced appétit
  8. Lower milk yield
  9. Swollen vulva
  10. Mucus discharge

Early morning, noon and late evening observations for 20 minutes each are necessary to observe more than 90 percent of the heats in a herd. During hot weather, watch animals earlier and later each day. During cool weather, the middle of the day is generally the best time to watch. Grouping cows that are ready for breeding or recently bred is another way to make the best use of observation time.

Cows tend to be more active on dirt or pasture and should be watched for heat activity while off concrete surfaces.  Increased activity will not occur in cramped cubicles or on slippery surfaces. Also, carefully watch cows the first 30 minutes they are turned out to pasture or an exercise lot. Activity is low during feeding and milking times.

Report Card:  Don’t manage to “fail”

Use a test to diagnose pregnancy.  There are accuracy differences and challenges with each method.  Here are three:

  1. Ultrasound
  2. Palpation
  3. Blood based pregnancy test

Do you know the rate at which your heifers become pregnant? Under poor reproductive management the service rate is 40 percent and a conception rate of 50 percent.  By contrast, the rate at which heifers become pregnant under excellent reproductive management measures out at a service rate of 90 percent and conception rate of 70 percent. The 40 percent service rate means 20% are in calf. The 70 percent service rate means 63% are in calf. In any classroom, a difference of 43% is humongous or, as the teacher would say, huge!

Although the average age at first calving can be 25.4 months for the poor-management group of heifers, more than 25 percent of the heifers will not calve until after 26 months of age and 10 percent of the heifers will not calve until after 28 months of age. Clearly, the average age at calving is not truly reflecting an underlying reproductive problem. But, more important, 95 percent of heifers subjected to excellent reproductive management will calve before 25 months of age!

Economics also supports the fact that you must improve results in this area. If each day open costs around $3-$4, then each heat missed costs $63-$84. And, remember semen, drugs and extra labour costs are over and above that $3-$4 per day.  This can be very costly in a herd of dairy cows. Catching heats is the first step to getting animals bred.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

None of the preceding information is new to people who work with dairy cows but obviously we forget to put it into practice. Practice makes perfect.  Heat detection makes profit. Go to school on your herd.

PREGNANCY RATES: More Pregnancies = More Profits

Wouldn’t it be wonderful if there was a silver bullet that could magically improve fertility in your dairy herd? Unfortunately, that wonderful product hasn’t come down the pipeline yet.

What Rates are we Talking About?

When you look at today’s progressive herds you have approximately 60 days to 120 days to get them in calf after calving.  Rates vary from herd to herd from a low of 10% to a high of 30%.  This sounds low.  However you must consider that any dairy cow that has calved is now milking and getting pregnant is not high on her body’s energy use agenda.  First she must maintain her own nervous system, then feed her young (produce milk), build up her own body reserves, and then, and only then, does reproduction get taken care of.

Improved Pregnancy Rates are Up to You

According to recent research there are three primary factors affecting pregnancy rates:  nutrition, environment and management.  This means that you have the opportunity to affect your own success in this area.  First let’s take a look at the big picture.

What Traits Pay the Bills?

The primary incentive in the dairy breeding business is to be successful and there are many variables that go into that success. When using any management tool, you seek repeatable results.  Reliability rates of male and, even more so, female fertility ratings are low.  What this tells you is that you must work first and foremost with the traits that pay the bills, like milk, fat, udders, feet and legs, somatic cell scores and productive life.  It is counterproductive to place an overriding emphasis on only one area.  Remember Grandma’s old saying, “Everything works together for good.” Looking at fertility measures is best considered only after you have reached the point where primary selection traits between bulls you are considering are equal. Then you might consider raising fertility a point or two. So where do you start? With fertility?  With  conception? With pregnancy rates?

QUESTION OF THE DAY:  Why does it matter?

Once you have posed that question, ask yourself what you could do with five or six more healthy calves out of the next hundred breedings? That represents a 10% gain!  Here’s the potential.

  • More calves = More interest in females to sell from your herd = $$$$
  • More calves = More A.I. companies contracting bulls = $$$
  • More calves = More likely to have the next generation of great genetics in your barn. $$
  • Less semen used = More money stays in your pocket $$
  • Less vet expense = More money stays in your pocket $$

ANSWER of the DAY:       

  • More calves = More Profit

The difference between a low and a high pregnancy rate can be significant: anything from 5% to 30%.  Work the numbers and you will certainly find the incentive to improve in this area.


Remember it starts with nutrition, environment and management.  

  • Make sure that the heifers from 4-6 weeks of age are fed high quality roughage.
  • Secondly, we put too much focus on reaching energy goals when feeding heifers, without putting enough focus on protein needs.
  • Don`t forget the importance of quality water for heifers from weaning until they`re safe in calf.  It is the most essential nutrient for the development we want to achieve.
  • Check body condition frequently so you can adjust the ration, because too fat or too skinny means she will be less fertile. The ideal body condition score to feed for is recommended as 3.

YOU SHOULD TARGET MINERALS:  They’re central to success

Mineral intake is very important. This is an area to get your best possible nutrition advice and put it into practice.  Ensure that the animal gets the macro and MICRO minerals that she needs. This is where mineral form can pay off.  Chelated trace minerals may cost more but are more accessible to meet the animal`s needs. Consult with your veterinarian. An extra injection of vitamin E and selenium may be crucial at this period as these two are key elements for fertility. By starting to manage the minerals at a young age, you make sure the heifers over a few months develop a good, constant diet, ensuring they are healthy and fertile up to the moment of breeding or implanting.

Health Status

Having a healthy cow or heifer is the starting point for good pregnancy rates. Although health traits are multi-faceted, lameness management is crucial to fertility improvement.  Herds with rigid hoof care management have increased heat detection rates, increased conception rates, and therefore increased numbers of pregnant cows.

Proactive Advice

The impact of proactive veterinary and nutrition advice cannot be overemphasized. When the purse strings are tight, consultant costs are often targeted for reduction or elimination but the right veterinary and nutrition intervention will produce results that will pay for the cost inputs.

Records of Success

Each farm will have different fertility issues and it is important to identify these.  The starting point has to be recording.  Many computerised systems are available, but are often underutilized. Recording and analysis will pinpoint the weakness in fertility management and then you can take action steps.

Heat Detection

Improving pregnancy rates starts with animal health, nutrition and, then, heat detection. You must have all three of these in sequence. Nothing operates in isolation.    In Canada the average heat detection rate is low. We don’t have a good number. Of course, those heats that are missed are not recorded.  We must use technology to improve this area. The message is clear: heat detection either by manual observation, technology such as pedometers, or by hormonal manipulation.  Get it done.


Improving pregnancy rates comes down to one thing: Constant attention to detail.

*The Bullvine is not a nutritionist or veterinarian, nor do we play one on TV.  Consult your nutritionist and veterinarian to meet the specific needs of your dairy herd.

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