Breeding: The race against time to get cows back in calf

Dairy farmers are facing a race against time to get dairy cows back in calf, according to LIC’s Joyce Voogt.

Speaking at a recent LIC/Eurogene information meeting, the LIC international technical manager said: “Mating is just in front of dairy farmers and there’s a few things that are important to help drive the success of the mating period.

“We talk about mating before calving is even over and that’s for a very good reason. If a cow is on a 365-day calving cycle, she’s only got 12 weeks from the start of calving to the start of the mating period.

A cow only has 83 days to calve down and get back in calf if she is to retain her calving interval. We call this the race against time.

“As farmers, you should be aiming to set your cows up for the very best possible outcome in the mating period,” the fertility expert explained.

Why fertility is so important

Continuing, she said: “In seasonal calving systems, days in milk are extremely important. The early-calving cow might have 80 more milking days than the late-calving cow.

“A late-calving cow has to produce a lot more milk per day to catch up to be as good an early-calving cow,” the vet said.

When farmers breed their herd, she said, it’s all about creating the herd of cows they want to milk.

“The first step is the pipeline of calves that you feed into your herd. We want plenty of choice, high-quality, healthy, and fit calves to rear.

“This comes down to the sires that you use across the herd. Those sires leave their genetic material in the herd for ever and this is why farmers will spend so much time focusing on breeding.

“With cows, we have the choice of which cows we want to get a replacement heifer from or even which cow we want to retain within the herd.

“Putting culling pressure on the female side of the equation is very important when you want to drive to the goal you want. This is where milk recording comes in. Without milk recording, we find it very hard to identify which are the better and worse cows in the herd.

I am a big fan of milk recording because it allows you to rank your cows and decide which ones you want to breed from and which bulls you might use to help compensate for something that’s unfavourable in a particular cow.

“The more information we have, the better choices we can make to help drive the herd that you want,” she said.

Without good herd fertility or good reproductive performance, she said, farmers don’t have as much of a choice when it comes to selecting which calves they wish to keep or sell.

Good herd fertility underpins herd performance and farm profitability. Without good fertility, we get precious little choice about which cows we can cull.”

‘Back to basics’

Joyce explained that a six-week, in-calf rate is important for driving profitability. But, farmers need to take a back-to-basics approach to ensure this key performance indicator is maximised.

She added: “I like to take every thing back to basic principles and look at what we actually have to do to get a cow in calf.

“First of all she has to be cycling. We have to see her cycling and get her mated at the right time. She then has to conceive and hold that pregnancy through to calving.

When we look at on-farm measures, the first thing we want to look at is: ‘Did we meet our submission and conception rate targets?’ They feed into the three and six-week, in-calf rate and – eventually – the final empty rate.

“We are aiming to get 90% of the herd mated in the first three weeks. That includes all of the cows. If a cow hasn’t calved by the time you’ve started mating, you’re going to have big trouble getting her submitted in the first three weeks.”

Joyce also said that farmers should prepare for breeding by tail painting their cows, ensuring that their drafting facilities are fully functional and that stock bulls are fit for work.