Read the Progressive Dairy Canada digital edition

Consider portable ultrasound to maximize dairy returns

Karen Abbott Published on 20 July 2013

With all of the challenges present for producers today, the task of continuing to find efficiencies and opportunities to enhance productivity are essential to remain competitive and profitable.

The next rising star is incorporating portable bovine ultrasound into the dairy’s reproductive management programs. Unlike manual palpation, which works by feel alone, ultrasound allows you to actually see inside the animals and will tell you a great deal more much sooner.



Portable bovine ultrasound

Specifically, portable bovine ultrasound offers the following advantages:

  • Significantly improve the accuracy of information learned during pregnancy checking. Ultrasound is dramatically more accurate than manual palpation at determining fetal viability, number of fetuses, fetal sex and fetal age.

  • Using ultrasound for pregnancy checks is easier on the practitioner, as well as the animals, making for shorter and less-strenuous work and a reduction in lost fetuses due to manually handling the uterus.

  • Earlier and more accurate pregnancy detection, as early as 27 days, allows for enhanced decision-making to re-breed open animals very quickly to maximize artificial insemination programs, improve overall fertility rates and reduce overhead costs.

  • Fetal viability can be confirmed as early as 27 days and gender determination as early as 55 days.

  • More accurate cycle stage detection for use with timed artificial insemination program.

  • Increase the speed at which the pregnancy checks are managed by 20 percent, depending on the skill level of the practitioner.

  • Improved fertility through more effective culling and marketing of problem breeders.

  • Diagnosis of ovarian and uterine abnormalities, depending on skill of the practitioner.

  • Reduced overhead costs – more effective use of time, labour, facilities and resources. More effective use of resources like semen, injections, etc., with timed A.I. programs.

Table 1

Why portable bovine ultrasound?
Pregnancy checking animals is an important and valuable decision-making tool.

Ultrasound allows you to see inside animals by passing the ultrasound transducer into the rectum.


Once placed over the reproductive tract, the ultrasound machine will display a black-and-white image of the ovary or uterus.

With manual palpation, your arm enters the rectum and examines the reproductive tract by “feel,” whereby the ultrasound image allows you to see the uterus and ovaries and therefore much greater detail and accuracy.

The most practical uses of ultrasound in reproductive management are to more quickly and accurately diagnose pregnancy much earlier, determine fetal age and fetal sex.

Once very expensive, cumbersome and fragile, technological advancements have made the machines very practical and cost-effective. It is now possible to have extremely durable, portable, lightweight and affordable options for field use to greatly enhance breeding proficiency.

Two other diagnostic tools are available to assess the reproductive tract and diagnose pregnancy – rectal palpation and blood tests. When performed by a skilled practitioner, ultrasound can be a faster and cheaper tool.

Ultrasound vs. pregnancy blood tests
With a pregnancy blood test, you are testing for a protein produced when there is a pregnancy. This protein stays around long after a fetus has died or a cow has calved, which leads to calling more cows pregnant than actually are.

Ultrasound has the advantage of visualizing the fetus and determining viability (fetus has a heartbeat that you can see) immediately.

Blood pregnancy tests only tell you pregnant or open, whereas the ultrasound can offer much more information. Blood pregnancy tests require drawing blood, sending off the samples, waiting for the test results and then managing steps to get the cow re-bred if open.

This requires a number of steps, which demand extra labour and time. With ultrasound, you are provided with results instantly, allowing you to take steps to get the cow re-bred much sooner if she is found open.

How ultrasound works in a breeding program

  • Early pregnancy detection – Ultrasound allows for early pregnancy diagnosis and has been reported to be 100 percent accurate as early as 20 days after breeding cattle. It is suggested for best results to wait until day 25 to 30 of pregnancy to best detect an embryo.

By this time, the embryos are a little larger and more easily spotted in the ultrasound image. Ultrasound can be used to reliably detect pregnancy at 30 days of gestation to assist producers in capturing more returns, whereas manual exams require an additional seven days.


Earlier determination of open cows means fewer missed estrous cycles and opportunity to quickly re-breed cows after insemination.

  • Fetal mortality – Rechecking pregnant cows to assure fetal viability is essential, as an embryonic death rate above 13 percent is common in the industry. Embryonic death typically occurs between conception and 60 to 70 days gestation. With ultrasound, dead fetuses can be detected as early as 26 to 55 days.

Some cows do not expel a dead fetus for months. Late detection of a dead embryo or fetus with manual palpation will result in the cycle of the cow being missed and a loss of profit.

  • Detecting twins – Twinning rates continue to increase in the industry, affecting milk yields and reproductive performance, especially in high-production cows. Ultrasound can be up to 95 percent accurate in twin diagnosis.

  • Fetal sexing – Determining the sex of the fetus can be done after two months of gestation. Even with the use of sexed semen, there are still many cattle carrying bull calves. Being able to identify which animals are carrying females will allow producers to make better decisions.

  • Fertility and ovarian structure – Timed A.I. programs are more prevalent in today’s dairy herds; the use of ultrasound with timed A.I. programs can dramatically improve a herd’s conception rate. Using ultrasound to diagnose cows not responding to timed A.I. allows you to remove animals to save the expense of semen, drug and labour costs being wasted on non-responding cows.

Only breeding cows responding to your synchronization program greatly improves your conception rates and the herd’s pregnancy rates. Ultrasound is the only way to accurately assess corpus luteum and ovarian structures.

A limiting factor in such programs is the inability to get semen into cows at the right time. Ultrasound provides great detail in determining fertility by viewing the corpus luteum and ovaries, depending on the practitioner’s skill level.

Pregnancy checking animals using ultrasound allows earlier detection of pregnancy than rectal palpation for a quick response time to re-breed open cows, confirm fetal viability, confirm fetal sex and is overall an effective tool in herd management to improve reproductive efficiency and overall profitability.

As it reduces the handling of the reproductive tract, it reduces the risk of embryonic death when searching for early pregnancies. Early and accurate pregnancy diagnosis enables the movement of pregnant animals, decreasing feeding costs.

Early detection allows for the sale of “open” animals into a yearling market, which allows for greater returns for animals that may otherwise be culled and conserves grazing resources by removing nonproductive animals, improving overall fertility rates and thus profitability.

Once very expensive, cumbersome and fragile, technological advancements have made the machines very practical and cost-effective. It is now possible to have extremely durable, portable, lightweight and affordable options for field use to greatly enhance efficiency and accuracy in diagnosing pregnancies.

While a high-quality portable scanner will cost between $6,000 to $10,000, the cost can be recouped quickly with use and the accompanying benefits.

Systems are now available specifically designed for use on the farm for reproductive management and do not include all of the sophisticated (and more expensive) bells and whistles that a professional veterinarian would demand. More simple, very practical units are available for less than $7,000.  PD

Ultrasound can be a powerful diagnostic tool when incorporated into a dairy’s reproductive management. Photo courtesy of FarmTech Solutions.

Karen Abbott
  • Karen Abbott
  • Co-Founder
  • FarmTech Solutions