Dairy producers offer fertility insights from their farms

Fertility is the crux of any dairy system, but how do you ensure maximum performance? Rhian Price speaks to three producers to find out

Caroline Spencer
Volis Farm, Taunton, Somerset

Farm facts

  • Milks 285 Friesian cross Jerseys
  • Averaging 5,000 litres a cow a year
  • Calving interval of 365 days
  • Achieving more than 90% submission rate
  • 70% of the herd is holding after first service
  • Spring block calving

Give us a brief overview of your breeding policy.

We operate a spring block calving policy, so it is imperative we serve everything within one block of 12 weeks. If they aren’t within the 12-week block they don’t stay on farm the following year.

The total breeding period is between eight and nine weeks. We use Friesian-Jersey and Jersey cross semen to inseminate the herd and then use Aberdeen Angus sweeper bulls at the end of the breeding season.

How have you improved fertility?

We tail-paint everything red one month before we start serving in April and within that month everything that has not lost its tail-paint is seen by the vet.

Breeding starts in May and everything that has cycled is then painted green. If the animal looses its paint she is kept in the following morning for insemination and is painted blue.

We are very strict about calving block and in order to achieve this we’ve bred fertility into the herd.

We breed all our own replacements, but we only keep heifers that are born within the first three weeks of calving and that are out of cows that get in calf during the first AI.

What has been key to helping you boost fertility?

First it would be the breed of cow. Cross breeds are phenomenally fertile and they are very strong bullers. We don’t really get any silent heats.

And secondly tail-painting. There’s either tail-paint or there’s not. When you look in the field you can instantly see what is painted without going to a computer to check or looking at paperwork.

Johnny Corfield

Johnny Corfield
Ackley Farm, Welshpool, Powys

Farm facts

  • Milks 250 Holsteins
  • Averaging 9,2000 litres a cow a year
  • Breeds all his own replacements
  • Calving index of 420 days
  • Achieving 30% pregnancy rate to first service
  • Services to conception in the rolling three months is averaging 2.56
  • All-year round calving

Give us a brief overview of your breeding policy.

We aim to calve all heifers between 24-26 months of age. Once in the herd they have a voluntary waiting period of 40 days, which includes postnatal checks. If we haven’t seen heats then we will start to synchronise.

We serve maiden heifers in groups of 30 within the first eight weeks. If something is found to be bulling they are served within 12 hours.

Then, after the eight weeks are up, we put them to a pedigree Holstein-Friesian cross sweeper bull.

We don’t tend to keep the bulls more than 18 months, because that way we’re not putting all our eggs in one basket.

We detect heats by watching the herd. We’ve got a good team and we are all relatively experienced, so we are quite efficient at noticing when cows are bulling. We used to use tail-paint, but we found that the cows licked it off each other.

How have you improved fertility?

We select AI bulls for health traits and type. Because we breed all our own replacements they have to be plus on fertility index – that’s fundamental. If they’re not, I wouldn’t even look at the bull.

We are also looking to reduce calving index by culling hard and we do weekly fertility visits with the vet, so everything that’s calved gets seen within the first month of calving, which means we can detect any problems straight away.

What has been key to helping you boost fertility?

Diet changes have played the biggest role for us. Getting a smooth transition from the dry cows to the fresh calvers, right through to the milkers, has been key.

The dry cows are having a grass-silage mix, with 3kg of straw and 3kg of blend, plus 0.5kg of molasses.

Milkers are getting a mix of maize-grass silage, with 1.5kg of molasses and 9kg of blend. This is topped up in the parlour to a maximum 4kg a head, depending on yield.

It’s not a huge adjustment, so you get less weight loss post calving and it doesn’t impact poorly on fertility.

Gareth Woodcock

Gareth Woodcock
Leek, Staffordshire

Farm facts

  • Milks 320 Holstein/Friesians
  • Loose two block spring/autumn calving system
  • Flying herd
  • 9,000 litres a cow a year
  • Submission rate = 90%
  • Conception rate = 33%
  • Calving index averages 410 days

Give us an overview of your breeding policy.

I took over the herd about two years ago and since then our calving index has dropped from 444 to 410 days, and is still improving.

We use tail-paint on all cows at 21 days prior to serving and we then check them daily. In the next 21 days, if the paint hasn’t been rubbed off, she goes to see the vet.

We run three Limousin bulls in with the herd, as well as using AI. I find the cows come into heat a lot better when the bulls are present.

We then PD everything at 120 days, because that gives you a definite yes or no if a cow is in-calf.

How have you improved fertility?

The biggest improvement we made is doing 20 day Met checks post-calving. A vet comes routinely to ensure cows have cleansed out and their hormone cycle is running correctly.

If there are any problems the vet follows up with the appropriate treatment. Usually, if a cow hasn’t cleansed properly we give her a washout and she goes back to see the vet again in 14 days and the vet might prescribe a course of antibiotics if there are further problems.

For the first time this year we had our bulls fertility tested. It was a real eye opener and we ended up culling three of our six stock bulls, because they had a low or virtually non-existent sperm count.

What has been key to helping you boost fertility?

Probably PRIDs (progesterone-releasing intravaginal device), because it stops cows from becoming too out of synch. For example, a cow giving 9,000 litres takes a bit to get back in calf, but using PRIDs gives you more control.

We have 48 cows on our PRID programme. Cows are carefully selected for the programme. They are cows we haven’t seen come bulling naturally, but have to be giving less than 37 litres and more than 60 days calved, with good body condition and have passed a vet check. Fifty-six hours after removing PRIDs we inseminate with triple beef straws.

Of these 48 cows, 58% have held to the first and second service.

For every day over 400 days that a cow hasn’t calved it costs £5, so at £25 a head the PRID system is extremely cost-effective.

Consultant’s view

Maintaining feeding consistency is fundamental to achieving good fertility rates, says John Cook, vet and technical director for Genus ABS.

“Feed behaviour approaching calving is seriously disrupted and you can get big fluctuations in dry matter intake.”

Dr Cook says it is important to get cows in to an eating pattern to avoid big fluctuations in weight. He also advises observing freshly-calved cows closely and encouraging them to get up and feed. Ideally cows need to eat 4% of their body weight, in terms of dry matter intake, post-calving in order to get back in calf by 100 days, he explains.

Good dietary management is also essential to prevent acidosis – where the pH of the rumen falls rapidly, he adds. “Cows need to eat meals at regular intervals, every couple of hours, so the flow of nutrients is very steady and it avoids big fluctuations in rumen pH.”

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