6 ways to prevent stale dairy cows

Getting into the habit of giving cows numerous chances to get pregnant can lead to more animals with extended lactations and a negative fertility cycle that is hard to break.

It’s these stale cows that have a propensity to get fat, making them more prone to metabolic disease, calving difficulties and weight loss, leading to poor fertility and a later calving yet again – it becomes a vicious cycle. 

Optimising fertility by having good fertility protocols in place is therefore essential to break this cycle. 

See also: Glossary: How to understand terms used in dairy fertility data

Vet Alastair Hayton, of Synergy Farm Health, says stale cows are “an issue on every farm” and although it can be tempting to extend lactations when cows are producing good amounts of milk, it’s often a false economy because of reduced efficiencies.

A cow with an extended lactation will never yield as much in total as one that calves every 365 days, for example.

Are stale cows a problem in your herd?

  • Look at the herd’s average days in milk. For an year-round-calving calving herd the target should be 160-165 days.
  • Similarly, if you’re failing to hit fertility targets (see the five fertility KPIs) then it is likely you have a higher number of stale cows than ideal. 

Below, Mr Hayton and Kite Consultant Paul Macer outline what six steps farmers can take to prevent and manage stale cows. 

1. Design fertility protocols

Designing good fertility protocols that include routine vet checks will help maximise fertility. Mr Hayton believes improving submission rates is one area that can help boost in-calf rates on many farms.

Submission rate is defined as the proportion of eligible cows that are served in a given period and is linked to heat detection rate.

  • Aim for a submission rate of 60%+ in a year-round-calving herd.
  • Spend the time spotting cows that are in heat or, if labour is limited, consider investing in heat-detection systems.
  • Adopt good AI technique and use fertile bulls.
  • For year-round-calving herds, have fortnightly vet visits as a minimum.
  • If you’re serving cows for the first time at day 50, if cows aren’t seen bulling by day 50, present them to the vet.
  • PD cows 30-35 days after service – don’t leave it too late. If you leave it until day 50, you’ve already missed two cycles.
Alistair Hayton in a dairy parlour

Vet Alistair Hayton believes improving submission rates can boost in-calf figures © Jim Wileman

2. Monitor body condition

Mr Hayton advises monitoring body condition score regularly – ideally once a month, but at least quarterly.

This will enable any outliers to be identified and managed accordingly.

The aim should be to address body condition in the two months before drying off (see point 3) with the aim of achieving a target body condition score (BCS) of 2.5-3.

Mr Macer says ideally condition should not change during the dry period and not by more than 0.5 of a score across the whole lactation.

3. Send cows to fat camp

Once overconditioned cows have been identified, they should be “sent to fat camp” in the two months before drying off, says Mr Macer.

This could include:

  • Reducing the cake in the parlour or out-of-parlour feeders (where applicable).
  • Lowering the energy levels – and particularly starch – in the TMR for these cows, while keeping protein up at about 17% for calf development and milk production. This could include taking out energy sources such as cereals and biscuit meal and possibly replacing some concentrate and high-quality silage with straw. This will be dependent on whether cows can be split off and grouped accordingly.
  • Turning cows out to grass on a low starch diet, where applicable.

4. Think about using preventative treatments/supplements

Monensin boluses can be used on overconditioned cows as a means of preventing ketosis in this at-risk group. The bolus helps the cow access more energy from the diet so she breaks down less fat and is prevented from developing metabolic issues around calving.

Mr Hayton advises farmers speak to their vet about the role of monensin boluses on farm. The bolus can be given three to four weeks before calving in at-risk cows, including those of body condition score 3.5 and more.

Incorporating a quality protected choline into the diet is another option to help improve liver function and thus prevent metabolic issues such as fatty liver. Speak to your nutritionist for advice.

5. Cull sub-fertile cows

If you have poor fertility, the danger is you produce fewer replacements and then can’t cull as many sub-fertile cows as you would like, leading to more stale cows in the herd.

As a general rule, consider culling any animals not in-calf by 250 days.

6. Adhere to good transition cow management practices

To avoid excess weight loss at calving, which will lead to metabolic health problems and sub-fertility, ensure the basics of transition cow management are in place. This includes providing plenty of feed space and access to water and reducing stress from unnecessary group changes.

Take-home messages

  • Don’t fall into the trap of giving cows too many chances to get pregnant, as it will lead to more stale cows in the herd which will reduce efficiencies and performance and lead to a poor fertility cycle.
  • Having good fertility protocols in place is a must to prevent stale cows with extended lactations.
  • Track fertility KPIs.
  • Monitor body condition regularly and address overfat cows before drying off.