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Technology aids heifer reproductive performance

Shane St. Cyr Published on 29 August 2014

Heifers are generally the most fertile animals on a dairy. Research shows that the mean U.S. conception rate for dairy heifers is 57 percent, so it’s not unusual for dairy heifer reproductive performance to be taken for granted while focusing on the lactating herd.

But that doesn’t mean that you should take heifer reproduction at face value and assume you can’t make improvements. Indeed, there is significant opportunity and financial reward to raising well-grown heifers that calve into your herd on time.

In fact, Holstein heifers have the greatest economic returns (between $99 and $138 per heifer) when calving between 23 and 24.5 months old.

That desire for improvement hasn’t been lost on dairy producer Mitch Breunig of Mystic Valley Dairy, Sauk City, Wisconsin. It led him to invest in rumination and activity monitoring technology to improve the health and reproductive performance of his 450-cow lactating herd.

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About a year and a half ago, he expanded activity monitoring to include the dairy’s breeding-age heifers – those raised at the home farm and those at his heifer grower’s operation about 15 miles away.

And he is extremely pleased with the results.

Efficiency gains
“At the home farm, we were tail chalking and using headlocks for breeding prior to using the activity system, but it didn’t seem like we were very efficient,” Breunig explains. “At pregnancy check time (32 days post-breeding), we’d often have two out of six heifers open.”

Results, while not bad, were not what he desired for the breeding-age heifers at the heifer grower’s either.

“Don’t get me wrong, they did as good of a job as they could there,” Breunig says. Heifers are on pasture at this facility and not always close to the barn for observation.

This made it difficult to determine the onset of estrous even though the heifer grower and his team were watching for heats multiple times a day.

“It was a question of timing – was she just coming into heat, was she going out of heat, were we breeding too early, too late?” Breunig says.

Technology yields results
The addition of a real-time, heifer activity monitoring system alleviated those concerns immediately, and it consistently increased efficiency along with reproductive performance.

The monitoring collars are placed on the heifers at about 12 months old so the system can establish a baseline of activity for each individual animal prior to first breeding.

It is the deviations from this baseline that identify the onset of estrous activity and helps users determine the optimal breeding window. The system features a unique sensor that accurately and precisely measures each animal’s body movements and intensity under any conditions.

These movements are automatically recorded, and then the data is translated into actionable information that is used to make breeding decisions.

Since the system has been in place, “we rarely have an open heifer at pregnancy check anymore,” Breunig says. “That’s because if a heifer does not conceive with an insemination, the system finds her quickly and she is re-bred in a more timely and efficient manner.

“It takes a little bit of time to learn how to interpret that data, but once you do, trust the data,” Breunig insists.

He has the evidence to back up that statement. Breunig says there’s been a 10 percent improvement in conception rate for heifers at the heifer grower. “It also means the personnel there can spend their time doing other things while being confident heifers are being bred at the optimum time.”

Plus, Breunig notes that the standard of deviation for age at first calving has been significantly reduced. Heifers are being bred in a tighter window, and as a result, are calving at a more consistent – and optimal – age.

Mystic Valley Dairy also has a robust embryo transfer program, and Breunig notes there’s been a 5 to 10 percentage point improvement in conception rate for embryos as well. “That means we’ve been able to implant more embryos and are more confident that our timing is correct,” he says. “We know when estrous began for each animal, which helps us identify the best time to implant the embryos.”

Other considerations
In addition, while heifers are highly fertile, it’s not unusual to miss estrous events or incorrectly detect heifers with visual heat detection. Successful heifer synchronization protocols have been developed in recent years, but they have been adopted with varying degrees of achievement on North American dairies.

In contrast, nearly all heifers show electronic system activity – allowing users to evaluate performance and use the information as a way to individually manage heifers within their herds.

“We seldom need to enroll a heifer in a synchronization protocol anymore except when we’re working with a group of heifers when we’re implanting embryos,” Breunig reports. “And the system helps us manage those animals individually within the group.”

Lastly, the return on investment is high for this technology. Because the system helps optimize conception rates, the collars can be rotated to a new heifer quickly, meaning producers can easily use the same collar on four to six heifers per year.

“The technology has been a very good thing for us,” Breunig concludes.  PD

Shane St. Cyr is a field support manager with SCR Dairy.

References omitted due to space but are available upon request. Click here to email an editor.

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



Monitoring system aids in heifer program success

Communication between dairy producers and contract heifer growers is critical to the success of the agreement and replacement programs.

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Adding technology like monitoring systems to the mix is one way Mitch Breunig of Mystic Valley Dairy near Sauk City, Wisconsin, and heifer growers the Yankes of Echo-Y Farm have successfully facilitated the flow of information to make informed decisions and elevate heifer reproductive performance.

The Yankes (Russell, Doug, Derrick and Darren) purchased their own monitoring system after seeing how it worked at Breunig’s operation. They monitor the activity of the heifers on his operation and make breeding decisions based on the system data.

Since each system is its own independent unit, Breunig and the Yankes have their own dedicated software (which is part of the system package). Breunig and Darren Yanke compare data on results and make any management tweaks based on heifer performance and herd goals.

The monitoring system installed on this pasture-based heifer-raising operation works similarly to how it would work in a freestall – just over a longer distance.

The collars are read by the operation’s reader as long as the animals wearing the collars are within reading range. The reader picks up the signal from the collar when the animals are within about 1,500 to 1,800 feet of the antennae.

Since the collars in this system are continuously logging data and holding the data in the collar, it’s not necessary to have antennas in multiple places.

The heifers must pass by the farm’s single reader to access water and supplemental feed, meaning data is downloaded frequently.

The Yankes and Breunig are confident in the results. Heifer conception rates at the heifer-raising facility rose by about 10 percent following installation of the system.

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