Worrying fertility statistics from herds in the Cavan/Monaghan region

Many dairy herds in the Monaghan/Cavan region are lagging behind when it comes to fertility performance.

Speaking at the recent Ballyhaise open day, Dr. Joe Patton – a Teagasc dairy specialist – presented some eye-opening figures on the fertility performance of 854 herds in the Ballyhaise catchment. The statistics excluded herds supplying <100,000L and/or had incomplete EBI (Economic Breeding Index) data.

Herd replacements

Starting off, Joe explained: “Probably the single most important technology out there on farms – and it’s freely available – is the EBI.

“It’s something we really have to embrace to a large degree and much stronger, perhaps, than we are doing at the moment.”

Although, Joe admitted, farmers in the region are quite good at using high-EBI bulls; the number of heifers born to those AI matings is quite small.

Over those herds last year, there were only nine AI-bred heifers born per 100 cows.

When compared to the Ballyhaise herd and herds in the top 10% for EBI, that’s 23 and 21 fewer calves born to AI matings respectively.

Furthermore, the EBI of dairy heifers born in 2017 remained low (€106) relative to national standards – particularly in relation to fertility traits.

Age of first caving

Continuing he said: “The other figure that jumps out to say there’s progress to be made in this region is the age of first calving.

“Looking at the Cavan/Monaghan region, just under 50% of the heifers calve at the target of two years old.”

Heifers are expensive to rear in any case; but the additional cost of calving at >28-30 months old is huge (close to €400/heifer compared to 24-month calving).

In addition, older heifers have been shown to have poorer lifetime fertility and milk production irrespective of breed or production system.

Table: Milk and fertility performance of Cavan/Monaghan dairy herds in 2017

Table source: Teagasc

Six-week calving rate

Another area of interest was the six-week calving rate figures being achieved by the herds in the Cavan/Monaghan region.

The statistics show that the average farmer in the region calved 47% of his/her herd in the first six weeks of the season; those in the top 10% of herds struck 68% and Ballyhaise achieved a 84% six-week calving rate.

Giving round figures, Joe said: “In about four weeks time, the breeding season will start for the herd here at Ballyhaise.

If we start breeding on April 5, 90% of the cows in the herd will have been bred at least once to AI by April 26.

“It is that compactness and the 90% submission rate that makes a huge difference; it really drives the whole pattern.”

Culling and recycling rates

Although the culling rates on the average (23%), Ballyhaise (22%) and top 10% (23%) of herds were similar, Joe outlined that the key difference comes in terms of recycling rate.

“People will tolerate culling 20-24% of the herd. However, the key difference between the average and the high-EBI herds is that the average herd is also recycling almost 20% of the cows. This means that one in five is being culled and one cow in five is taking a holiday.

“There is an inefficiency problem there and that really needs to be addressed. The average farmer is culling 23% and recycling 19% of the herd. If he didn’t hold on to them, his culling rate would be 39%.

Farmers are disguising the problem by holding on to cows at farm level and that’s something that really needs to be addressed.

“We can’t just go in and decide to do that in one year, as it is carnage at farm level. We have to have the heifers coming through. But, we also have to make some attempt to get 90% of the cows served in the first three weeks and 100% served in the first six weeks,” he said.