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Fertility focus key to herd efficiency (Feb 23)

Good herd reproductive performance depends on close attention to detail from transition-cow management and nutrition through to semen selection. One Cumbria-based producer highlights the rewards of focusing on every stage of the fertility cycle.


Achieving high margins from his 370-cow Holstein herd comes, first and foremost, from fertility, according to Cumbria-based producer John Mann. He concentrates on reproductive management above all else, and finds the rewards are not just seen in parameters such as pregnancy rate and calving index, but filter through to every aspect of herd performance.

This includes the production of high-quality milk, excellent metabolic health, and strong financial margins. Herd average yield is 10,400kg of milk at 4.54% fat and 3.61% protein, with a rolling average somatic cell count of 143,000 cells/ml, and John has virtually eliminated cases of left displaced abomasum (LDA) and rarely sees milk fever. The herd’s margin over purchased feed per cow per year on a 12-month rolling milk price of 42.06ppl is £3,300 – that’s £1,100 higher than the herd’s costings group’s average herd margin.

“If you don’t have fertility you don’t have anything – no calves and no milk. But equally, everything goes into fertility,” says John, who manages his herd at Crooklands Farm on the Solway Plain, near Wigton.

Top priority

Transition-cow management is his top priority, and he pays particular attention to achieving high dry matter intakes. “Restrict a milking cow’s feed intake and she will give less milk, but dry cows will respond with LDAs, milk fever, retained cleansings and poor fertility,” he says.

Transition-cow management: achieving high dry matter intakes is vital

With this is mind, every possible restriction on intakes is removed, whether that’s by presenting fresh, high-quality feed and plenty of clean water, or ensuring standing surfaces at the feed face offer good grip. “If the floor is slippery cows are reluctant to stand and eat,” he says. “We scrape the passageways regularly and have grooved the concrete. We also ensure the transition-cow group has access to plenty of trough space – at least a metre per head.”

Monitoring intakes is the only way to ensure the success of this policy, and John does this by using Alta COW WATCH. Monitoring activity, rumination, eating time and inactivity, 24/7, gives him an early indication of any drop in either individual or group feed intakes, and can potentially pre-empt problems before they surface.

Dry-cow ration consistency is also key to success and, aside from four weeks’ summer grazing for the far-off cows, this comprises 5kg straw, 8kg whole-crop barley, 15kg second-cut silage, 1kg soya, 1kg rape, plus dry-cow minerals.

Calcium boluses

Mineral status in transition cows is also critical to achieving good fertility and all second calvers and upwards are given RumiLife CAL24 fast- and slow-release calcium boluses within a few hours of calving, to protect against sub-clinical milk fever.

“We began using the boluses when we had an outbreak of milk fever in December 2021 and managed to trace the problem to inadequate intakes of magnesium chloride,” he says.

“Since then, we’ve used magnesium chloride in the ration and continued with the boluses. They help to get the cows off to a good start in early lactation and also seem to reduce the incidence of retained cleansings and metritis. This all positively impacts fertility.”

Once cows have calved, close attention is paid to the same metrics and they are checked before each morning milking.

“Any cow flagged up by the computer is examined while she’s in the milking parlour, and we may pick up an early indication of mastitis or another problem,” he says. “The first thing a sick cow will do is stop eating and if I can’t identify why with my own skills, I put her in front of the vet.”

Heat detection

Improving heat detection is perhaps the most obvious route to improved reproductive performance and John admits he was concerned when moving away from the synchronisation programme he’d previously been using because it worked so well.

He decided to move away from injecting cows in response to pressure from both his milk buyer (Arla) and consumers.

But activity monitors have played a significant role in maintaining reproductive performance and helped achieve the herd’s pregnancy rate of 27% and a calving index of 387 days. Sexed dairy semen is used on the top 50% of the herd, with Wagyu beef used on the bottom half.

“The best females are identified through Alta’s mating program, based on a genetic index created to John’s specific breeding criteria,” explains John’s breeding adviser Dickie Baines.

Using Alta’s Concept Plus high fertility semen, which offers a conception-rate advantage of between 3% and 7% when compared to an average sire’s conception rate has helped contribute to the herd’s reproductive performance.

Thoroughly tested

“We like working with these bulls as we know they have been thoroughly tested on commercial herds across North America before they’re given this branding,” he says.

Maintaining a constant body condition score and good metabolic health is also key to good herd fertility, and both have been addressed through the ration. This includes the addition of highly-digestible crimped cereals and good-quality multi-cut grass silage, as well as some Hipro soya, protected fat, and yeast. The herd’s TMR offers an ME of 12.1MJ/ kgDM and 17.2% crude protein.

Genetics and breeding also play a part in maintaining body condition, not least through selection against angularity and stature. But the long-term breeding goal has always been for fat and protein percentages, and this shows in the herd’s production.

“We would never disregard kilogrammes of milk in our breeding,” says John. “Our system is fairly intensive and to be a high-input herd it’s vital to also have high output.

“Our costings would look bad without plenty of kilogrammes of milk. Our buyer pays for fat and protein, but the litres spread the costs,” he says, reflecting on the 0.41kg of concentrates fed per litre. Other considerations in breeding include daughter fertility index, which must always be positive, as well as somatic cell count and mastitis.

Breeding policy

Sire selection: genomic bulls are used across the herd

“We are not interested in overall type scores, but would look at a few individual linear traits such as teat length, avoiding those that are short, and foot angle, ensuring it’s not too shallow,” he adds. “But we review our breeding policy regularly and spend an hour with Dickie each month. We walk the herd and discuss any improvements that we can make,” he says.

Completely focused on young, genomic sires, John says he uses a group of bulls at any one time to spread any risk, rarely buying more than 50 straws of one sire.

“I need to raise the level of the whole herd, not just one cow, and a team of bulls will achieve this,” he says. The success of this strategy is clear, with production, fertility and health all combining to produce a high-performance and profitable herd. Attending to each tiny detail and insisting every decision is evidence-based will promise its continued success.

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