Fertility Focus: What can UK herds learn from US dairy systems?

Westpoint Farm vet Matt Gue visited America last summer as part of a short study tour funded by the Farm Link Travel Bursary.

During his stay, he spent time in California and Idaho working alongside dairy veterinarians.

Below he discusses what he learnt about cow reproductive management and how many of US principles can be applied to UK dairy systems to help improve fertility.

There were many common factors to the UK dairy industry and most challenges faced by farmers in Idaho and California will be the same as those faced here.

See also: Fertility Focus: Lessons from a large-scale Jordan dairy

Not all of what I learned is applicable to British dairying, but the foundations of efficient and profitable production remain the same: good cow welfare, health, nutrition and fertility.

All dairies I saw, large and small, calved year-round and had three common themes:

  1. Herd fertility was viewed as the most important factor on the farm.
  2. The metric for measuring fertility success was the same across all dairies: pregnancy rate.
  3. Cows were treated as a herd. Therefore, the fertility protocols were the same for every cow. For example, I didn’t see one farmer that extended an individual cow’s voluntary wait period (VWP) because she’s giving too much milk.

The importance of pregnancy rate on your dairy unit

Pregnancy rate has the ability to determine reproductive performance quickly. It enables us to see if, and when, changes to herd management have affected reproductive efficiency.

Metrics such as average days in milk or calving interval are too historic to have much value when assessing whether farmers and vets should make changes to fertility protocols.

A word of caution: be careful when comparing pregnancy rates between software systems as they all interpret the data slightly differently, so will give different results. If benchmarking yourself against other farms, ensure that all data is run through the same software.

Furthermore, analysing the data is only valuable if the data input is thorough and reliable. Poor data input will lead to misinterpretation of data, which can lead to inappropriate and costly decision making.

Why cows should be treated as a whole herd

Treating animals as a herd is vital for good fertility. If some animals are being treated with prostaglandin, some with Ov-Synch 56 and some on a different protocol because they’re cystic, it is very hard to ensure compliance.

If protocols are not followed, the probability of those treatments resulting in a pregnant cow falls dramatically.

What pregnancy targets should you strive to achieve, and how do you hit them?

 With advancements in fertility management, cattle breeding and cow comfort, a pregnancy rate of >20% is achievable for all herds.

You should look at your pregnancy rate with your vet. If it sits below 20% I recommend reviewing your fertility management, including a review of other areas that influence reproductive performance. The transition period is a great place to start.

When deciding on fertility protocols with your vet, ensure the protocols are evidenced-based, cost-effective and you will achieve 100% compliance.

Finally, the best dairy farms I visit in the UK and the farms I visited in America had two other common themes which stand out above all else:

  • A can-do attitude
  • A fantastic team environment