Fertility in Dairy Cows-The Bigger Picture Part 4

Ways to Save Money through effective fertility management

This is the fourth and final part in my series on fertility in dairy cows, in the previous 3 articles we have looked at several factors that influence fertility, namely dry cow management, herd health and nutrition.

Now it is time to move away from all this and look at ways in which to make savings through changes in your repro programme and the way you manage it. Given the current situation within the dairy industry I feel that this article allows us to explore options to reduce costs.

The first option is the use of sexed semen. Sexed Semen has now been on the market for 15 years and has steadily grown in popularity as it has become more reliable and more accessible with better genetics now available. However, can there be a cost saving aspect with the use of it?

Let us consider two 100 cow herds, one of which uses conventional semen along with beef semen, whilst the other uses sexed semen along with beef semen. The assumption is made that both herds have the same replacement rate of 25% meaning that both herds require 25 heifer calves per year.

We also need to take into account differences in conception rates (CR) between sexed and conventional. Research done by Norman et.al. (2010) across 20 million services showed that conception rates were reduced on sexed semen by 10%. Table 1 shows a comparison of the costs and financial benefits of each system.

  Conventional Herd Sexed Herd
Herd Size 100 100
Heat Detection Rate 65% 65%
Conception Rate Holstein 40% 30%
Conception Rate Beef 50% 50%
Conventional Semen Used (Straws) 125 0
Conventional Semen Cost (£18 per straw) £2,250.00 £0.00
Sexed Semen Used (Straws) 0 93
Sexed Semen Cost (£28 per straw) £0.00 £2,604.00
Beef Semen Used (Straws) 100 144
Beef Semen Cost (£6 per straw) £600.00 £864.00
Cost of Semen £2,850.00 £3,468.00
Value Of Calves (Beef: £250) (Dairy Heifer: £250) (Dairy Bull: £30) £19,500.00 £24,340.00
Value of Calves-Cost of Semen £16,650.00 £20,872.00
Deficit £4,222.00

Looking at the table above the cost saving from using sexed semen is significant. Not considered in this table is possible differences in preg rate meaning Heat detection rate multiplied by CR, and calving index as a result of using sexed semen. At first glance one might be of the opinion that ignoring the effect of the difference in CR between sexed and conventional would result in differences in preg rate and calving interval.

However in reality there would be little difference.

This is because the sexed semen approach uses more beef semen which would potentially result in improved reproductive performance. Success with sexed semen will be heavily dependent on the current reproductive performance of the herd.

If fertility is an issue then the other articles in this series should be read. Table 1 only shows the expected financial implications for a 100 cow herd. Therefore as cow numbers increase the benefit will increase exponentially. Also not considered within the table are other issues that could add to the cost savings.

For example Norman et.al (2010) proved that difficult calving were reduced by 28% in heifers and 64%. The use of sexed in cows therefore would reduce vet fees and consequential milk loss. Moreover De Vries et.al. (2008) showed that through the use of sexed semen, genetic improvement can be expected to increase by as much as 15% year on year due to breeding from the best cows/heifers within a particular herd; this will all have an impact on the savings made through the use of sexed semen.

Alternatively consider the fact that heifers produced from sexed are likely to have better fertility as they have been bred off cows with good fertility in order to get in calf to sexed semen.  It is therefore clear that using sexed semen can potentially result in a significant cost saving benefit for milk producers.

The next option in cost saving measures is to install a heat detection aid or simply just improve heat detection rate by improved observation. With the current drive to reduce fixed costs it is important that heat detection is not compromised. Heat detection aids can help to replace the void left by reducing labour on farm. This makes the decision  to invest in a heat detection aid more feasible. The installation of these systems will improve heat detection rates by up to 20% depending on current performance.

Shown below are some comparable costs, once again based on a 100 herd cows.

  Normal Herd HeatTime Herd
Herd Size 100 100
Heat Detection Rate 65% 85%
Average Conception Rate 45% 45%
1st service cows pregnant 29 38
Deficit 9
Cost of extra Days (£3.09 per day (Blowey, 2005)) (21 day cycle) £584.01
2nd Service cows pregnant 21 24
Deficit 12
Cost of extra Days (£3.09 per day (Blowey, 2005)) (21 day cycle) £778.68
3rd Service cows pregnant 15 15
Deficit 12
Cost of extra Days (£3.09 per day (Blowey, 2005)) (21 day cycle) £778.68
Total Deficit £2,141.37

Bear in mind that this is just the savings seen through improved fertility.

Better fertility will result in a lower percentage of cows with extended lactations that subsequently become over conditioned and suffer transitional diseases. Transition health issues can range in cost from £50 per cow to upwards of £400.  Improved fertility and calving index will lead to more peak yields due to quicker turnaround time lactation to lactation. The net effect of this will be higher herd production and improved feed efficiency.

If we consider the cost of the system the payback period is likely to be around 3 years based on collar costs and the cost of the actual system.  Considering collars last around 5-7 years it is clear that this system is a successful cost saving measure despite the initial cost of the installation. However this method proves less successful than the first measure discussed in terms of ROI.

Alternatively taking complete control over fertility through a synchronised breeding programs could pay dividend. This is an aggressive policy but is less labour intensive. However the key here is control as it can be very easy to make a mistake within the programme which will ultimately effect results. It requires close management and individuals who understand the importance of compliance. Non-compliance to the set protocols is the number one reason why these breeding programs often perform poorly.

The final and probably most important cost saving to consider is reducing the average age at first calving.

Calving heifers at 24 months compared to 27 months will improve days to conception by 20 days during both first and second lactation (NADIS, 2016). That is a difference of 40 days throughout the two lactations regardless of the saving made in heifer rearing, improved milk production and reduced culling rates.

Therefore purely from a fertility point of view over the first two lactations having a heifer calve at 24 months will result in a saving of £123.60 per cow over and above the cost of a 27 month calving age. This within a 100 cow herd, meaning 25 heifers per year, results in a net saving over the year of £3090 just through the improvements in fertility seen by calving heifers younger.

Conception rates in younger heifers is significantly higher. Cooke et.al. (2012) reported that heifers calving between 23 and 25 months had an average conception rate of 74% at bulling whilst a heifer calving between 26 and 30 months conception rate was 50%.

In a similar evaluation NADIS (2016) reported a difference of 20%. Using the lowest figure to compare conception rate between the two sets of heifers, and assuming a heat detection rate of 80% the pregnancy rate difference between the two groups is 16%.

Based on research done by the University of Minnesota in 2014 the cost per heifer in lost milk, lost days and increased calving problems would be £213.12 based on a cost of £13.32 per percentage difference in pregnancy rate.

Basing this on a 100 cow herd once again with a replacement rate of 25% would save the business £5328 per year. Therefore adding this figure to the figure discussed in the previous paragraph a net saving of £8418 per year is made through calving heifers at 24 months instead of 27 months. This difference becomes greater as the heifer age increases.

In conclusion there are several ways in which large cost savings can be made through effective breeding management, something that isn’t considered enough within the dairy industry. All three of the options presented result in large savings for any dairy business which is going to prove crucial in the coming months.

Therefore during the next month I ask you all to think about the three options suggested and consider which ones would work for your business.

Read over the previous articles in this series and begin to take the steps that allow greater efficiency and cost effectiveness through proactive and innovative fertility management.

Fertility in Dairy Cows – The Bigger Picture Part 1Declining Heard Fertility

Fertility in Dairy Cows – The Bigger Picture Part 2The Transition Management – The Silent Killer

Fertility in Dairy Cows – The Bigger Picture Part 3Managing Transition Cows

This concludes my set of articles regarding fertility within the dairy herd.

For further information on any of the issues discussed within this series or for a full fertility audit on your herd please contact a member of the dairy technical services team.

Written by Will  Astley – Dairy Technical Specialist

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