With an annual pregnancy rate of 21 percent, the herd at D&D Dairy near Rushford, Minnesota, significantly exceeded the industry average for reproductive performance. But co-owner Dean Smith knew the dairy could do better.

In addition, Smith wasn’t thrilled with the dairy’s reliance – with somewhat variable results – on synchronization protocols.

The dairy milks about 1,000 cows at two locations, meaning the solution needed to be able to address reproductive challenges at two facilities with multiple personnel.

Smith discovered technology that combines rumination monitoring with activity monitoring during his search and decided to implement it on the operation in 2012.

Monitoring performance

Activity monitors have been used to successfully detect estrus for years. For instance, research published in the June 1994 Journal of Agricultural Engineering Research notes that these tools can accurately identify estrus based upon both duration of an elevated activity and increased activity intensity.


Figure 1: 1613pd_stcyr_fg_1

Furthermore, activity monitoring can help target specific times for insemination and reduce the need to estimate, or guess, where cows are in the breeding window ( Figure 1 ).

Additionally, producers, veterinarians and nutritionists have used rumination time as a key indicator of individual cow performance, feed quality and cow well-being for years.

The average cow ruminates between

Figure 2: 1613pd_stcyr_fg_2

450 and 500 minutes per day.

Once an individual cow’s rumination baseline has been established, tracking any changes to rumination time ( Figure 2 ) helps managers quickly identify which cows to investigate for further action.

Combining these two key indicators results in a powerful management tool for improved dairy cow health and reproduction.

Figure 3: 1613pd_stcyr_fg_3

Graphically, dairy producers tracking cow activity and rumination time can see where the lines for these data diverge, indicating that a change is taking place within the cow.

Figure 3 shows how a diamond pattern emerges between activity and rumination, indicating estrus when viewing this cow’s graph.

This ability to see the beginning, the peak and the decline of estrus provides beneficial information that can be used for insemination decisions.

Research presented at the 2013 Precision Dairy Conference in Rochester, Minnesota, this summer emphasizes this relationship.

The results show that the usage of rumination data combined with activity monitoring improves the performance of an activity-based heat detection system.

In this study, the system accurately detected 95 percent of estrus cycles. This level of accuracy is extremely beneficial, as studies have shown that nearly 70 percent of estrus activity occurs between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m.

KPI improvements

Since the system has been adopted at D&D Dairy, the herd’s reproductive results have climbed steadily. The system accounts for all of the herd’s heat detection and nearly all of the inseminations (94 percent).

The dairy has found it adds a level of consistency and performance that was otherwise difficult to achieve with multiple sites and multiple people managing cows and reproduction.

The dairy’s key performance indicators show:

  • Pregnancy rate improved from 21 percent to 26 percent.
  • Percent of cows pregnant by 100 days in milk increased from 50 percent to 57 percent.
  • Percent of cows pregnant by 150 days in milk increased from 72 percent to 77 percent.

“These results allow for better management decisions, since more pregnancies give me more flexibility in my decision-making regarding which cows can be removed from the herd and which cows will stay,” says Smith.

“We can now look at a cow with issues – like somatic cell count, foot health or udder conformation – and say her genetics in our herd stop with her,” he adds.

Health benefits noted, too

It’s no secret that health status impacts reproduction. For example, University of Minnesota researchers note that mastitis prevents ovulation, extends the interval to first breeding and reduces fertilization rates and embryo development.

Mastitis compromises pregnancy establishment and maintenance and increases incidence of abortions. Cows that have mastitis at any interval after calving have reduced pregnancy rates.

In other words, healthier cows have better fertility.

The rumination and activity monitoring technology that enabled D&D Dairy to gain in reproductive performance also offers increased insight into cow health.

This information is an important indicator of fresh cow health status, which helps farm personnel catch health issues earlier – often before physical symptoms even appear.

As a general rule, rumination time usually increases steadily during the first week after calving until she returns to her baseline rumination time.

The actual minutes of the increase in rumination time will vary by cow, but if this steady increase does not occur, the cow needs attention, even though she may not visually appear to be sick.

As a result of this monitoring tool, death loss at D&D Dairy has decreased and herd removals due to mastitis have declined by 28 percent since the system was installed.

“We felt we would be able to catch the sick cows quicker,” says Smith. And that, indeed, has been the case.

The combined effects of the system – improved cow health and reproductive performance – have resulted in a one-year payoff for the technology. “It’s worked really well for us,” says Smith.

That’s a quick return for taking the guesswork out of dairy cow management. PD

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

Shane St. Cyr