Tips for getting cows bred for a tight window

By Dan and Ruth Vosberg, South Wayne, Wisconsin — If the only information you’ve heard about dairy farming the last few years came from mainstream farm publications, you’d think that all dairy farmers need estrus synchronization hormones to get their cows bred. Indeed, one of these magazines recently highlighted some of the top reproduction herds in the country. All but one farm used hormones, and those that used them stated that these products were key to their success.

Also, in looking at the average pregnancy rates published, you’d believe that it’s impossible to have a seasonally bred herd. A 60% first-service conception rate (which I consider necessary to be seasonal) isn’t even considered an attainable goal for most dairy farmers.

While these sad situations may be plaguing confinement dairies, many graziers are achieving above-average conception rates without estrus synchronization programs, while getting enough milk from their cows to be at least as profitable as confinement dairies.

On our farm, we’ve been able to maintain first service conception rates above 60% for several years, which has allowed us to consistently maintain a six- to eight-week calving window. Last year our first-service conception was well over 70%.

We don’t think we’re great dairy farmers or great cow people, and we think that many graziers can achieve similar results – if that is their goal. For this reason, Joel asked us to jot down some tips for achieving high conception rates and a narrow calving window without the use of hormone treatments.

1. Fertility is heritable When it comes to a lot of things you can’t beat a good cow family, and fertility is no exception. When we started, we bought cattle from a number of different herds. For some of those cows we included reproductive performance in our selection criteria, and most of those cow families are still in our herd today, surviving 11 years of seasonal calving. Of the cattle that we didn’t look at reproduction, most of those cow families are gone. Today we’re led to believe that selecting the right bulls will solve your cow problems. But this can be a slow and unpredictable process. If you’re buying cattle or deciding which heifers to keep or sell, key on reproduction and udders, and you’ll make big improvements in cow longevity.

2. Nutrition Make sure all of the cow’s nutritional needs are met all year long – especially energy. Make sure the cows get filled up. Don’t assume they are full just because they stopped grazing. This may mean moving the wire more during the day, or supplementing with some other feed. Challenge your cows to eat more. Don’t underestimate the importance of a good dry cow program. It’s hard to get good breeding performance if you had trouble during calving. Make sure you don’t get dry cows too fat. A goal should be to have very few (if any) retained placentas. Cows should be showing good heats even prior to breeding season. If not, it could be related to a nutrition problem.

3. Heat detection Watch for heats at least twice a day for 20 minutes each time, minimum. Watch the cows out on pasture when they’re not busy grazing. Watch them when they’re walking the lanes. Use a team or family approach. Pay attention in the parlor for rub marks, discharge, coming into the parlor in an unusualorder or side, acting overly friendly, bellowing, and other unusual actions.

4. Heifers Don’t take heifers for granted. You need enough of them, equal to at least 25-30% of the cowherd, to get a six-week calving window. Make sure their protein needs are met so they are well grown by breeding. And make sure they are not short on minerals and vitamins prior to and during breeding season. We generally force-feed vitamins and minerals during that time. If using bulls, you will need one bull for every 15-20 heifers. We rotate bulls in case one isn’t getting the job done. To lesson the chances of calving difficulty, we breed all our heifers to Jersey bulls.

5. Don’t inbreed – crossbreed Crossbreeding should boost your conception rates by 5-10%. At the very minimum, don’t develop inbred animals, as that will generally lower your conception rates. Overall we’ve had more luck with foreign genetics, and we’ve generally stayed away from U.S. Holsteins because they have more problems getting bred.

6. Semen deposition The biggest mistake people make in doing AI is depositing the semen too far in, which would mean up in one uterine horn. If in doubt, back up a little to deposit the last bit of semen farther back than you think it should be.

7. Hot weather We start calving in early March, which means we start breeding around May 23. This means we generally get one round of AI in before the really hot weather hits. When it gets hot, we work to keep the cows cool by offering them shade during the day. We will also make sure we don’t crowd the cows in the holding pen to the parlor. We will bring in only around 20 to 30 cows at a time and hold the rest back, even with the fans on them. Overheating cows will kill embryos. Don’t underestimate the importance of this. You can do everything else right, but if cows overheat, they won’t breed.

As graziers, we have advantages such as crossbreeding and cows being off concrete, and we have the time to watch cows for heats. On our farm, we enjoy watching cows out on green grass showing good heats, rather than having them stand around on concrete and giving them shots.

Dan and Ruth Vosberg milk cows near South Wayne, Wisconsin.