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Tap technology to improve reproductive performance

Shane St. Cyr Published on 30 June 2015

Although dairies have made significant strides in boosting reproductive performance over the past decade, there’s still plenty of room for improvement. Even in the best herds, top managers are continuously seeking new ways to gain reproductive efficiencies.

As a result, a growing number of herds have come to rely on the actionable data provided by animal monitoring systems that combine rumination tracking with activity monitoring. This allows them to more accurately pinpoint breeding times and improve overall reproductive performance.

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The technology visually depicts exactly what’s going on with an individual cow. As specific body motions increase and rumination decreases, it’s a sign that the cow is in heat.

Precision decisions

That knowledge makes breeding more precise, often reducing the dependence on broad estrous synchronization and timed-A.I. programs. These protocols then can be focused on cows with reproductive challenges rather than being implemented herd-wide, which saves producers time and money.

Figure 1 shows the change in activity and rumination during a heat period – the activity increase and rumination decrease is a very typical behaviour of a cow in heat.

heat period changesThe combination of the two parameters creates the “diamond shape,” which is a highly accurate indication of a cow in heat. When you know when estrus occurred, you can then inseminate cows in a timely manner to improve conception.

The ability to see heats in graphic form, and then compile lists of cows to breed based on this data, takes a tremendous burden off of visual heat detection. This, in turn, takes a burden off of farm personnel.

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In addition, the latest version of the system has made this information available on a cloud-based system, enabling producers to easily share this data with key personnel and advisers.

Replacing eyes

A growing dairy in the U.S. Northeast turned to animal monitoring to overcome this persistent issue with dramatic results.

Following adoption of the technology, the herd’s 21-day pregnancy rate has soared from 14 percent to 24 percent. According to research, improving your pregnancy rate by those metrics equals a revenue increase of about $1,381 per cow per year.

The herd’s veterinarian is impressed, noting that the dairy has made tremendous headway due to the basic biology of cows and heat detection.

He says the technology helps dairies better identify when to breed cows and allows them to use synchronization protocols in much more precise applications instead of as a blanket treatment.

Furthermore, the dairy has found that the improved health monitoring and reproductive performance has resulted in additional replacements.

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Reducing reliance on synch protocols has also evened out the dairy’s calvings over time, so instead of births in “bunches,” calvings occur more evenly spaced. This makes it easier to manage transition cows, calving pens and newborn calves.

Finding missing cows

One of the reasons herds have found success with the monitoring technology is that by removing human error, the system “finds” cows in heat that would otherwise be missed.

That’s because not every cow in estrus is easy to spot. For every cow that exhibits notable physical signs – like extra activity, mucus discharge or behavioural changes – a number of her herdmates show virtually no indicators of heat.

A significant portion of these cows are often designated as anestrous. Anestrus is the failure of cows to exhibit overt estrus. Experts suggest anestrus is more commonly a problem with heat detection than an actual failure to show signs of heat.

Short estrous cycles, poor footing and dairy management decisions can all impact heat detection success and inaccurately determine that cows are anestrous when in fact they are not.

These situations are where these monitoring systems really shine. The combination of rumination data plus activity data gives producers added opportunity to determine what’s actually going on with a cow.

Also, since you are not relying on visual observation, you can identify deviations in her data profile for a much more reliable indication of estrus rather than waiting to see if she’s going to exhibit signs that you can perceive.

Plus, if she does not present any “system heats,” that becomes an indicator the cow should be examined so you can perform the appropriate intervention.

Ultimately, rumination monitoring takes dairy reproductive programs to the next level. The system combines rumination monitoring along with accurate heat detection – and provides a recommendation for the optimal time for insemination.

As a result, dairy producers and their management team are better able to manage reproductive programs – with an outcome of higher pregnancy rates and fewer costs associated with estrous synchronization programs and disease treatment – all of which lead to an improved bottom line.  PD

Shane St. Cyr
  • Shane St. Cyr

  • Field Support Manager
  • SCR Dairy Inc.
  • Email Shane St. Cyr

Not enough time

Data from the U.S. National Animal Health Monitoring Survey’s (NAHMS) Dairy 2007 report showed that 93 percent of dairy operations used visual observation to detect heat.

Optimally, visual detection of heat requires observation of the cows for 30 minutes, twice daily. The 2007 study indicated dairy operations are all over the board when it comes to following that recommendation:

  • 59.7 percent of operations using visual observation had a person designated to detect heat.

  • Of operations that used visual observation for heat detection, only 37.9 percent had a set number of times and duration per day for observing estrus.

  • The operation average total time dedicated to visually detecting estrus was 62.5 minutes per day.

  • Almost one of four operations (22.9 percent) observed for estrus for 20 minutes or less per day, while a similar percentage (21 percent) observed for 81 minutes or more.

Most producers readily admit that heat detection is a constant challenge on their operation. Therefore, in many cases and as evidenced by the NAHMS data, the value of visual observation is limited because it is dependent on skill and experience, is not fully accurate and does not allow analysis.

It is impossible to maintain observation 24 hours a day, which means that a significant share of estrous events may be missed by visual observation.

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