Dairy cows being milked in- arlour(c) Tim Scrivener

Investment by dairy farmers in cow housing and health has resulted in a marked drop in cell counts and improved fertility.

Latest results from a study of key performance indicators (KPIs) of UK dairy herds found advances in nearly all parameters, including fertility, production and health.

The study by Reading University analysed a cross-section of 2014 NMR records from 500 herds. Compared with five years ago, when the study started, on average:

  • 10% more animals are now served by day 80 (56%)
  • Calving to first service has reduced from 105 days in 2010 to 86 days
  • The number of animals conceived 100 days after calving has increased from 26% in 2010 to 31%

James Hank, one of the report’s authors, says parameters relating to heat detection have also all improved.

“Ten years ago farmers would be treating their way out of a problem and now they prevent their way out.”
Peter Orpin, Park Vet Group

“Although conception rates have largely remained unchanged, the combination of serving cows earlier and improved heat detection has resulted in median calving intervals that are 13 days shorter than they were five years ago [424 days v 411 days]. The culling rates have also remained largely unchanged, so these are genuine fertility improvements rather than culling cows that cannot keep up.”

Milk yield a cow a year has also improved by about 600kg, which Dr Hanks puts down, in part, to improved fertility performance as cows are spending more time in higher-yielding lactation.

The other area of progress has been somatic cell counts, which have fallen by 21,000 cells/ml, so now the majority of UK dairy herds have a herd SCC below 189,000 cells/ml.

Read how farmer focus writer George Brown has cut cell counts

Vet Peter Orpin of Park Vet Group, Leicestershire, puts the reduction in cell counts down to a number of management factors. “Investment in housing, improved cubicles, stocking density, better pasture management and schemes such as the DairyCo Mastitis Control Plan has helped focus farmers’ attentions and improved overall cow health.

“Ten years ago farmers would be treating their way out of a problem and now they prevent their way out,” he says.

Mr Orpin says a shift in breeding focus has also helped reduce cell counts. “Farmers are now selecting healthier stock and cross-breeding has also made a difference. In our own practice we have seen quite a reduction in mastitis rates,” he says.

Steps taken by farmers to improve fertility and investment in heat detection aids, as well as increasing the number of lame-free cows entering the service period has contributed to an improvement in fertility, believes Mr Orpin.

“Some 90% of herds in our practice are on some sort of fertility programme that involves PD’ing cows and looking at data. I spend a lot of time with my clients doing this now.

“Benchmarking and KPI analysis helps farmers make decisions. Using them has demystified fertility and created a more focused approach,” says Mr Orpin.

Practical targets for 2015*



Percentage served by day 80


Percentage conceived 100 days after calving


Calving to 1st service interval (days)


Calving interval (days)


Age at first calving (years)


Conception rate


Percentage service intervals at 18-24 days


* An upper quartile figure calculated by the level of performance achieved by the top 25% of herds in 2014.