Reproductive performance on dairy farms has improved in recent years. And that’s important, because poor reproductive programs carry a serious financial cost. According to data from the University of Missouri, an increase in days open can be valued from $0.50 to $4.50 per day – a pregnant cow is worth $250 to $600 more than an open cow, and each percentage point increase in pregnancy rate (PR) is equal to roughly $35 per cow.

Plus, keep in mind good programs can always get better. There is always an opportunity to tweak systems so they work better together for optimum profitability and efficiency. The challenge is to keep reproductive programs on course for continued success so smaller issues don’t become big problems.

One way to help ensure peak performance is to invite outside experts to offer you and your management team a fresh set of eyes regarding your reproductive program. If you decide to go this route, the first question from a consultant should always be, “How can I help?” – before ever offering a management change.

The answer is going to be different from farm to farm, but should start with an understanding of the challenges owners and managers (and their teams) see as problems. That way the whole team starts on the same page, which is essential in order to arrive at the most relevant and economical solutions.

It’s also very important to include all members of the dairy team in the consultation process, from your nutritionist and veterinarian to the people implementing your reproductive program.


This is also the time to talk about what’s important to your dairy in terms of reproductive performance – to identify goals and where the team sees potential bottlenecks or problems.

Respect for each other’s positions and opinions are critical for buy-in and success.

Data requirements

After you’ve got this step handled, it’s time to dig into the data and lay the groundwork for a diagnosis. Begin with 12 months of herd management data. If you don’t have this information available, the process will be nearly impossible to complete.

Key information points include:

  • Service rate – This is defined as the percentage of eligible cows bred during a 21-day period.
  • Conception rate – This is the number of animals that conceived divided by the number inseminated.
  • 21-day pregnancy rate – This is the percentage of cows eligible to become pregnant that do become pregnant within 21-day periods. In other words, pregnancy rate is determined by heat detection rate (submission rate for insemination) multiplied by conception rate.
  • Days between services – This tracks the time between one A.I. service and the next. This determines how soon a cow is re-inseminated in case of conception failure.
  • Distribution for first A.I. – This examines when cows received their first A.I. service.

In high-producing confinement herds, a realistic goal would be to shoot for a service rate of 60 percent, conception rate of greater than 30 percent, 18 to 20 percent pregnancy rate, fewer than 35 days between services and nearly 100 percent of cows to be submitted for first-service A.I. between 50 to 100 days in milk.

Compare same to same

Use these data points to benchmark against herds of similar size and to judge your herd’s reproductive performance. That way you can see just how you stack up against other dairies and where deviations in performance occur.

Again, conversations about dairy team expectations and performance goals are essential while exploring this data.

Keep in mind that you may not always be looking at comparable data when benchmarking against other herds. This data has value and can be of great help. But keep it in perspective.

For example, one herd may code a lot more cows as “do not breed” than another because their culling criteria or goals are very different. If you don’t know this, you will not be getting an accurate picture of what’s happening on the farm in terms of reproductive performance, resulting in unfair and incorrect comparisons.

Also, some herds may cull a greater proportion of cows than others or even have a greater percentage of cows in their first lactation, which are generally more fertile.

At the very least, you should benchmark against your own performance and examine trends within your herd and management strategies. Decide how much variation is acceptable: when service rate fluctuates by 5 percent, at 2 percent or another point?

Again, this is why it is important to have at least 12 months of data, so you are not misled by seasonal challenges or other factors that may temporarily impact performance.

There can be great value in going through this exercise. As noted earlier, poor reproduction carries a significant cost. So improving reproduction also carries significant reward. If gaining one percentage point in PR is worth $35 per cow, then going from a 15 percent PR to an 18 percent PR on a 1,000-cow dairy is worth more than $100,000.

Seek any and all solutions

Sometimes, the “second set of eyes” provided by an outside consultant can pinpoint problems that really have nothing to do with a dairy’s reproductive performance at all, like what happened recently on a larger Western operation that was seemingly struggling with getting heifers bred.

The problem was with how a computer program calculated results. The breeder and heifers were doing their jobs, but the computer didn’t accurately record the results. A call to the software provider quickly cleared up the problem, and no changes had to be made because reproduction on the farm was actually quite good.

Other situations require more involved solutions. For example, a Midwestern dairy was averaging service rates around 45 percent and conception rates were under 30 percent.

The farm relied on timed-A.I. protocols in addition to heat detection but wasn’t satisfied with overall herd performance. After analyzing the data and visiting the farm, it was determined that adding an experienced person to visually heat detect cows on the farm offered a viable solution.

One year later, after instituting the suggestion, service rates climbed to 60 percent and conception rates rose above the desired 30 percent level.

As always, it is your decision whether to take any advice offered or even whether to seek out additional expertise.

But at the end of the day, you need to run a profitable dairy operation – and an effective reproduction program is essential to meet that objective. Today’s dairy farmer needs to use all the tools at his or her disposal to accomplish this goal. PD

Alex Souza