6 Tips for success

Read our monthly 6 tips newsletters, designed to give insights around reproduction in dairy farming businesses. These handy and timely tips include anything from reminders to new discoveries.

With aged pregnancy results coming in, this edition of six tips will help you identify areas that might be holding back your repro performance.

Narrowing in on these factors will allow you to focus your attention where it’s needed the most – giving you the best chance to improve performance.

All of these can be done via MINDA® and will require good records. However, If you do not keep good records in MINDA®, these tips can be an opportunity for you to see what valuable insights can be gained from doing so.

Compare the in-calf rates (or not in-calf rates) between:

Late calvers and those that calved in the first six weeks of calving

If late calvers (those that calved after week 6 of calving) make up a considerable portion of the herd (aim for less than 13%) and are demonstrating lower performance, it’s likely the late calving group is holding back reproductive performance.

Look into your records to help understand why they’re getting in calf/calving late. You could also try some short term methods such as culling or the use of SGL to get back on track.

Animals that aren’t at target body condition score and animals that are

If those that aren’t at target make up a sizeable portion of the herd and have poorer performance, this will be a contributing factor to lowered reproductive performance.

To improve BCS, strategies such as preferential management, increased feeding, once a day milking or drying off early are all good options.

2 & 3 year olds should be 5.5 at calving, 4.5 at mating.
4+ year olds should be 5 at calving, 4 at mating.

Animals affected by health issues and animals that aren’t

If those affected are not performing as well as those that are then it’s likely cow health is a contributing factor to lowered reproductive performance. Take a look at what portion of the herd is affected by health problems to determine the urgency of the issue.

Talk to your vet to discuss precautionary measures and have a quick response to significant health issues that arise.

Different age groups within your herd

If there is a particular age group that is underperforming and represents a decent portion of the herd, look further into their records such as weights, BCS and health to determine why and take the necessary steps.

Different periods in time

Look at the in calf rates and see if there was a point in time where in calf rates dropped off. Consider timely events that could have caused this to happen. This could be anything from changing from AB to bulls to a change in weather or feed supply.

And finally, put it into action

Prioritise what area demands the most attention by looking at what portion of the herd falls into each problem category.

First set a goal (have fewer cows under BCS target), then create a plan and assign tasks to staff (preferential management for the suboptimal group with increased feeding, drying off early or once a day milking), and be sure to measure and track results (regularly scoring cows).

Review your mating end date to prevent a wide calving spread

The longer your mating period, the longer your calving spread for next season. Tighter calving patterns give cows more time to recover between calving and mating, improving their ability to get back in-calf. It also allows time for staff to have a quick break before getting busy with mating! If you’re trying to decrease the impact your mating length has on calving spread, think about using short gestation length semen in your final few weeks of mating.

Make informed culling decisions to prevent wasting resources

Once you have received results around herd testing and expected calving dates (from early -aged pregnancy testing) you have all you need to make informed culling decisions for herd improvement, and it is best to move quickly. You don’t want to be wasting resources on stock you don’t plan on keeping.

Manage grazing effectively to prevent a feed shortage

Measure pasture regularly to ensure pre-grazed and residual targets are met. You want to make the most of your spring grass and be able to quickly identify if you will require supplementary feed to get you through the summer months or if you have surplus that can be used to make silage. Underfed stock can have a big impact on milk production, meeting BCS targets at calving and subsequent reproductive performance.

Measure liveweight of young stock to prevent under performance

Measuring regularly will allow you to identify if there is a group that needs preferential management before it is too late. They should reach 30% of liveweight at 6 months of age, 60% at 15 months and 90% at 22 months of age. Dairy NZ has more detailed information on nutritional requirements of heifers.

Monitor BCS to prevent poor performance

This time of year stock will have generally lost a bit of condition since calving. Getting them back up in time for calving next season needs to start now. First and second calvers should have a body condition score of 5.5 at calving and 4+ year olds a score of 5 at calving. Regular scoring will allow you to track their progress and decide on an action plan of preferential management for stock who are behind. Not reaching these targets will mean your stock won’t be in the best position to perform well reproductively and productively the following season. Check out our website for more tips on maintaining body condition score over summer.

Create a plan for summer to prevent dropping the ball

Create a plan for all of this so that you don’t drop the ball in managing your girls to have the best reproductive and productive performance possible. Dairy NZ have a good summer management plan template available for you to use, suggesting some important things to consider.

Weigh young stock regularly

This will allow you to track their growth so you can make informed management decisions and give them the best chance at becoming high performing animals.

If you enter this data in MINDA® Weights you can analyse this information to ensure young stock don’t deviate so far off track they can’t recover. Having heifer weights in close proximity to their targets is a key step to getting them in-calf when they reach their mating age.

We recommend weighing them at least once before they leave the nest and then again every 1-3 months at grazing.

Book pregnancy test dates

It’s a busy time of year and vets can be in high demand so make sure you book in early so you get your preferred dates for pregnancy testing. An early aged pregnancy test will ensure you get actual conception dates as well as a detailed fertility focus report. This kind of information can help you spot where the opportunities for next season lie. To get this information, your girls need to be scanned between 35 and 122 days from conception, this can sometimes mean booking two tests.

Use our when to scan calculator to figure out when you should be getting scans done.

Be vigilant with stock movements

Under the current state of heightened biosecurity in New Zealand, make sure you’re taking the relevant precautionary measures for all stock movements. Whether you have stock coming on-farm or you’re sending stock away, this DairyNZ biosecurity checklistis a great resource to use.

Prepare for end of mating

If you’re bringing bulls on-farm make sure you’re aware of their health status, movements and the biosecurity practices that are in place on their source farm. Wherever possible, source yearling virgin bulls directly from closed herds. Before they arrive make sure you have taken relevant safety precautions to keep your staff safe.

For farms that are extending their AB period and going ‘no bull’ have a staff roster in place to manage potential heat detection fatigue. Consider using SGL semen at the end of mating to condense calving spread, increase days in milk and give cows more time to recover before mating.

Keep records up to date

Collecting records such as body condition scores, calvings, non-cycling cow treatments, health issues (eg. mastitis) and pregnancy test results can allow you to assess your performance and clarify what is holding back key performance indicators, such as 6 week in-calf rate, on your farm. So keep those books up to date!

Start planning holidays

Holiday season is just around the corner, so start discussing holiday rosters with your farm staff. You don’t want to be left short-handed!

Monitor submission rate

Are you putting up enough cows to hit the 90% 3-week submission rate target?  Checking your submission rate daily will let you see if you’re still on track.  Because you’ll have your finger on the submission rate pulse, if you’re not on-track, you’ll have the chance to make changes during mating, e.g. adjust heat detection practices or herd feeding management, rather than just getting a nasty surprise at pregnancy testing time.  An easy place to see your daily submission rate is the Daily Submission Rates graph on MINDA Live.   Alternatively, page 28 of the InCalf book show you how to calculate your submission rate.

Monitor invented heats

Are you putting up the right cows?  Invented heats are costly and indicate that heat detection practices may need improvement.  To keep an eye on the number of invented heats this mating you can use the Early Indicator – Repeat Matings graph on MINDA Live between days 7 to 17 of mating.  You are aiming for less than 10% in the “% Returned” box.  If you’re over 10%, it’s not panic time, but it is a good time to review your heat detection practices to see if any improvements can be made.

Monitor milk dockets

Is herd nutrition impacting your submission rate?  A study by Burke and others* found that restricting feed during the mating period impacted submission rate.  The authors proposed that this may have been due to a weaker expression of heat in the feed restricted cows impacting the ability to accurately detect when they were in heat.  What does this mean for you? If your herd is going through a feed pinch, it may make your/your bull’s job of finding which cows are in heat harder, and lead to a reduction in submission rate.  Use your milk docket to monitor your herd’s nutrition so that you can pro-actively manage your herd’s feeding to prevent drops in submission rate - Nutritional Check #2, page 88 of the InCalf book.

Maintain heat detection aids

Is your heat detection aid maintenance up to scratch?  Keeping on top of aid maintenance will help to reduce confusion at mating time.  Poor aid maintenance could make it hard to tell if a cow’s tail paint/heat mount detector has truly been rubbed off/has come off due to the cow standing to be ridden, or if she is just changing her coat.  On the other hand, ensure tail paint isn’t too thick, otherwise no amount of riding will rub it off!  Check out heat detection aid tips on pages 111-115 of the InCalf book.

Managing cows separated out for AB

Could your AB cow management be affecting conception rates?  Once you’ve done the hard work of finding which cows are on heat, give them the best chance to conceive by following ‘good management practices’.  Following the practices on page 127 of the InCalf book, such as providing these girls access to quality pasture/feed and water, will help to eliminate unnecessary stresses that may impact conception rates.

Monitor the bulls in with your heifers

Are the bulls doing their job?  Do you have enough bulls (especially if you’ve done a synchrony)?  Is your bull management optimal?  Whether the bulls are out with your heifers or your cows, having enough well managed bulls is critical for getting good in-calf rates.  Calving early as a first calver is one of the key elements to setting up your heifers to have a long productive life in your herd.  Use the resources on the DairyNZ Bull management page to help ensure your heifers have the best chance of getting in-calf early.

Why do I need to hit target?

Hitting the pre-mating heat target (at least 85% of the herd cycling by mating start date) means, on average, that you’ll have better mating results. Looking at herds that had pre-mating heats and non-cycler cow treatments recorded (2013 to 2017 spring matings), herds that were on target had a 5% higher 6-week in-calf rate than those who weren’t.  They also treated about 2/3 fewer non-cycler cows.  This means that putting in the work to maximise your herd’s pre-mating cycling rates will help you to have a lower cost per pregnancy, higher farm profitability, a tighter calving pattern and more AB calves next season.  For more pre-mating cycling information, check out chapter 17 of the InCalf book.

Maximising pre-mating cycling rates

When taking a long term view on reproduction, maximising pre-mating cycling requires a whole lifecycle/whole season focus.  Seeing as we’re not far off mating this season though, here’s a couple of things you can do right now to help maximise pre-mating cycling rates:

  • Keep on top of cow health issues –health issues, such as mastitis or endometritis, have been shown to increase the time it takes for a cow to resume cycling after calving.  Reducing and proactively managing cow health issues could help increase the number of cows you have cycling pre-mating
     

  • Preferentially manage young/lighter cows – preferentially feeding, running in a separate mob, and/or putting these cows on once-a-day may help increase the number of these girls that will cycle before mating starts

Why do pre-mating heats

Doing pre-mating heats has many benefits - the big one being that it allows you to be pro-active in your non-cycler management.  Depending how far out from mating you are, having pre-mating heat information will give you more options than just hormonal intervention for dealing with your non-cyclers and getting your girls cycling ahead of mating.  For information on doing pre-mating heats check out page 148 of the InCalf book.

Timing does matter

If hormonal intervention is an option you plan to use for your non-cyclers, the earlier you treat (before vs after mating start date) the better your reproduction results and bottom line are likely to be.  Based on the last 5 season’s data, herds that treated their non-cyclers before mating start date treated more cows, but their better 6-week in-calf and not-in-calf rates means they earned around $8,900 more the next season*.  Treating earlier doesn’t have to mean treating more cows though.  It’s likely there will be cows in your non-cycler group that aren’t worth treating (old cows, poor producers), so being selective in who you treat will help to keep treatment numbers down.

Importance of heat detection accuracy

Most of us know that missing a heat is costly, but so is inventing heats (mating cows that are not on heat).  Invented heats not only waste semen and increases your cost per pregnancy, but if you mate a cow that is already pregnant, there is a 20-50% chance she will lose her pregnancy (Sturman et al. 2000).  Invented heats result in a short return (cow mated again within 1-17 days), so reducing your short returns will result in you reducing your invented heats.  If you are worried that trying to reduce your short returns will mean a lower in-calf rate, herds with fewer invented heats (less than 20% short returns on the Return Interval Analysis) have, on average, a 3% higher 6-week in-calf rate.

Create a heat detection plan

To help ensure heats are not invented or missed, get the team together and nail down your heat detection plan.  This is especially important if you’re going to extend your AB mating length this year.  Before mating starts, create a heat detection plan that includes assigning who does what and when, a heat detection roster (if needed), and procedures for a) drafting cows on heat (so cycling cows don’t slip through the net), b) selecting which of the drafted cows you’ll mate, c) heat detection aid maintenance, and d) heat detection aid reapplication after a cow has been inseminated.  Pre-mating heats are the perfect time to dust-off your heat detection skills and assess new staff members’ skills, plus there is usually a Heat Detection workshop somewhere nearby that you can attend to pick up the latest heat detection tips and hints.

The good news

The national average 6-week in-calf rate lifted to 66.4% for the 2017 spring mating.  This is the first time the 6-week in-calf rate has gone up since the 2013 spring mating, so it’s good to see the national average heading in the right direction again.  Increases in 3-week submission rate and conception rate have driven the lift in 6-week in-calf rate.  Keep up the good work so we can continue to push the national average towards the 78% 6-week in-calf rate industry target!

National average 6-week in-calf rate

2016

2017

Difference

6-week in-calf rate

2016 65.6%

2017 66.4%

Difference 0.8%

Not-in-calf rate (mating length)

2016 16.7% (76 days)

2017 17.2% (75 days)

Difference -0.5%

3-week submission rate

2016 77.9%

2017 78.9%

Difference 1.0%

Conception rate

2016 52.1%

2017 52.6%

Difference 0.5%

Herd 6 week calving pattern

2016 85.0%

2017 82.9%

Difference -2.1%

First calver 6 week calving pattern

2016 93.6%

2017 93.1%

Difference -0.5%

The not so good news

Not-in-calf rate edged up slightly this year.  Given that a 2% increase in 6-week in-calf rate generally results in a 1% drop in not-in-calf rate, the increase in not-in-calf rate despite the better 6-week in-calf rate shows us that there is still room for improvement in our mating management after week 6 of mating.  Things such as inadequate herd nutrition (e.g. poor pasture quality and/or quantity) and bull numbers/management could be factors after week 6.

Why we focus on 6-week in-calf rate

If we break the national herd into quartiles (based on 6-week in-calf rate), herds in the top quartile of performance have a 20% higher average 6-week in-calf rate than those in the bottom quartile, and a 10% lower average not-in-calf rate with an 8 day sorter mating.  Notice that the difference in not-in-calf rate is half that of the difference in 6-week in-calf rate.  The take home message from this is that cows generally do get in calf eventually (especially if you mate for long enough), but, by having a lower 6-week in-calf rate you’re missing out on days in milk and AB calves (and much more).

Not in calf rate

Importance of maximising submission rate

To help lift 6-week in-calf rate, we need to continue to improve our 3-week submission rate.  The stats show that the average conception rate declines as mating goes on, so maximising your 3-week submission rate and submitting as many cows as possible in the first 3 weeks of mating will help to take advantage of the higher conception rate we generally see at that time.

Conception rate

But try to do it naturally

The 1% increase in 3-week submission rate this year may be partially due to the increase in the number of non-cycler treatments used this season.  Which in turn may be a result of the slower Herd 6 week calving pattern (i.e. more late calvers = more non-cyclers).  Whilst treating non-cyclers will help lift submission rate (which is better than doing nothing if you have a non-cycler problem), treated cows have around a 10-15% lower conception rate (due to being on their first heat after calving, which is always the least fertile).  So to maximise the benefit of submitting more cows in the first 3 weeks, work on reducing how many non-cyclers you have (page 143 of the InCalf book) so that the cows you’re submitting are more likely to have a good conception rate.

And try not to compromise accuracy

The quickest way to increase submission rate is to put cows up to AB cows willy-nilly.  But not only will your conception rate suffer, your wallet won’t thank you either.  It is important that you/your staff don’t miss heats, but you need to maintain heat detection accuracy so that your cost per pregnancy doesn’t skyrocket because of invented heats (cows submitted when not on heat).  And the stats show that, nationally, we have a plenty of room for improvement in our heat detection accuracy - only 30% of herds met the industry short return target (13%)!  Short returns (two matings within 17 days of each other) indicate that heats are being invented/cows are being submitted when they are not on heat.  Brushing up on heat detection skills pre-mating will help to reduce the number of invented heats.

Rearing to go

To help ensure your calf rearer gives your girls the best care, make sure there is a realistic work roster in place.  We all make mistakes when we’re knackered, so having a roster that ensures everyone gets the time off they need to charge their batteries will help to ensure your calf rearer is always at the top of their game.

Quality colostrum is liquid gold

Calves that don’t receive enough quality colostrum within the first 6-12 hours of life are more susceptible to disease and death and have lower weight gains, putting your girls on the back-foot right from the start.  Make sure your farm has plan that ensures every calf will get all the quality colostrum she needs.  DairyNZ has also put together a fact sheet on precautions for rearing calves in light of M. Bovis.

Healthy calves become healthy cows

Have your calf monitoring and calf shed cleaning plans handy in the calf shed. Diligent calf health monitoring and calf shed sanitation will help to reduce illness in your calves, which will help them to put their energy into growing rather than fighting off bugs.

Get them to target weight

A successful yearling mating period requires heifers to be at 60% of their mature liveweight by mating start date.  Getting them to this target relies on good growth rates, which are largely determined by energy intake.  Ensuring your calves are getting enough high quality feed from birth through to weaning, and beyond, is essential for getting your girls to target.  Remember, your later born/lighter calves may need preferential management to help them ‘catch up’.

Keep em' on track

Weaning is a time where all your good work up to that point can come undone.  Weaning a calf too early can cause a check in growth rates, which could decrease her chances of hitting her liveweight targets.  To help avoid this potential pitfall, wean your calves on weight for age targets and meal intake.

Capitalise on your hard work

For last year’s calves, their yearling mating is in the not-to-distant future - capitalise on the hard work you’ve put into them so far by getting them in calf quickly.  To help do this, put your yearling mating strategy together now.  If you’re going to AB your heifers, ensure that your plan takes people, sire availability, and infrastructure suitability into account.  If you’re going to naturally mate them, secure your bulls early to ensure you will have enough, but keep your farms biosecurity in mind when selecting your bulls.

Buy Short Gestation semen packs

Increase your profits and save on breeding costs. Contact your LIC rep to order No Choice SGL Packs and Compact Calving + BW Packs.

Contact your LIC rep to buy

Buy Short Gestation semen packs

Increase your profits and save on breeding costs. Contact your LIC rep to order No Choice SGL Packs and Compact Calving + BW Packs.

Contact your LIC rep to buy