When I get onto a dairy struggling to get cows bred, fingers start pointing. Often, it’s an outside person who is blamed: the nutritionist, the breeder or the veterinarian. From my experience, I can tell you the problems are more likely to stem from within – but then again, sometimes they don’t.
In the following two scenarios, I will explain how I uncovered the root of reproduction problems and who was really to blame.
Example 1: The dishonest breeder
I had been consulting a dairy that struggled to get cows bred. As I looked into the issue, I ruled out the feed and the herd management. The cows were milking well and in overall good health, yet conception rates were hovering in the low 20s.
As I scratched my head to figure out where the hiccup was, one of the employees tipped me off. He was the cow pusher, and he had noticed that the breeding technician was not servicing all of the cows. In the morning, the cows would be locked up for breeding.However, if the technician was in a hurry, he would breed half of the group and then turn the rest out.
The pusher had attempted to bring this concern up to the dairy’s ownership before, but it had fallen on deaf ears. After all, the breeder and the owner were buddies. Also, cows were not being bred at the ideal time intervals for the synchronization program.
Meanwhile, conception rates continued to suffer until the owner was finally willing to second-guess the breeder’s honesty. I convinced him to allow another company to come in and breed cows on a trial basis, and that was when it became clear that the breeder was to blame. The numbers with the new company were a night-and-day difference. In fact, the conception rate now is in the mid-30s.
Example 2: The careless feeder
In another instance, I came onto a dairy with a host of reproductive problems: pregnancy rates in the single digits and high levels of abortions, early embryonic death loss and metabolic disorders. At their wits’ end, the dairy was on the verge of switching breeders and had turned over three nutritionists before I arrived, and the vet was next on the list.
As I evaluated the situation, it all kept leading back to nutrition. Though the ration looked good on paper, it was clear feed management was not good. When I got to the bunkers, I could see mold on the piles. The haylage was wet and slimy and gave off an odor of butyric acid.
To remedy these issues, I appointed an employee to remove the mold, and prior to feeding the haylage, we spread it on the concrete for a few hours to air out. This seemed to improve things.
Over time, cows were in better health and more cows were getting bred; however, something was still off. To no avail, the breeding company was working hard to make changes and implement different versions of synchronization programs to improve reproduction.
Again, I went back to the feed area. As I observed the feeder, I could see he was not following the nutritionist’s ingredient list. Instead of filling the mixer to the appropriate weight, whatever amount was in the bucket was dumped in. I addressed the concern with the feeder and gave him the opportunity to improve his performance.
To keep him in check, the nutritionist took weekly samples from the feed in front of the cows and compared it to the ingredients they had balanced for the ration. Eventually, it became clear the feeder was not willing to follow the instructions or be held accountable. Simply put, he was not the right person for the job, but someone else on the farm was.
In this case, the solution was parting ways with the feeder. I also encouraged the owner to invest in feed management software for more accurate monitoring. Soon after, things were looking much better. The conception rate reached the mid-20s, and abortions and early embryonic death loss dramatically declined.
Though it is easy to blame the breeder and the feeder in these two scenarios, the truth is that the dairy’s management is really at fault. It can be easy to let relationships get in the way of addressing concerns. The fear of an uncomfortable conversation may hold you back from keeping dairy employees or outside service providers accountable.
In any case, as an owner or manager, it is your job to surround yourself with the right people who take pride and ownership in the work or services they provide and to empower them to succeed; with that achieved, only then will reproduction and other aspects of the dairy operation fall in place. PD
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