More than five years ago, Heller Farms increased their pregnancy rate from 10 to 18 percent by switching from a breeding synchronization program to activity monitoring.

Freelance Writer
Boylen is a freelance writer based in northeast Iowa.

Since June of 2015, they have taken another huge jump in their pregnancy rate – from 18 to 29 percent – by switching from the activity monitoring to an updated synchronization program.

“We were looking to take another major jump in preg rate. The results coming out of the research at University of Wisconsin demonstrated we could be doing much better than we were. We don’t struggle with labor issues on our dairy, and we have a phenomenal team to administer the program, so we went with it,” said Cody Heller during the recent Dairy Dialogue Day, sponsored by Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin.

Heller farms with his brother, Shane, and their father, Blake, near Alma Center, Wisconsin. They are currently milking 1,500 cows and farm 6,000 acres. He manages the dairy side of the operation, and Shane focuses on fieldwork and farm mechanics. Blake still helps with daily tasks and assists during the busy cropping seasons.

Prior to 2012, the Hellers were using a single, very simple CIDR Synch and Presynch program.


Seeking to increase the pregnancy rate further, they chose to try the Double OvSynch program after reviewing the extensive research done by Paul Fricke and the dairy team at University of Wisconsin. “The team of vets at Central Wisconsin Ag Services (CWAS) have worked and consulted with Dr. Fricke extensively to determine that Double OvSynch is the practice’s go-to plan for the best reproduction,” he said.

Cody Heller and Paul Fricke

“It’s fascinating how a change in research and protocol with the same hormones just used differently can change perspective and results,” Heller said. “Upon leaving the activity system and going to Double OvSynch, we added a cost of about $16.33 per cow in hormones, but our pregnancy rate has moved from 18 percent to 29 percent in 16 months’ time.”

Voluntary waiting period extended

A major difference between the program used before 2012 and today is the hormone protocol during the voluntary waiting period, before the actual breeding program begins, Heller explained.

“We made the decision to [extend the] voluntary wait period on cows,” Heller said. “This was done as the 50-day waiting period was getting a lower conception rate.”

Heller’s basic protocol for first service starts with prostaglandin F-2 alpha (PGF-2) 40 days after calving, followed by gonadotropin-releasing hormone (GnRH) on days 43 and 50. Cows receive PGF-2 on days 57 and 58, GnRH on day 59 and are bred anywhere between day 58 and 65 [averaging day 60], depending on the day of the week.

On day 32 from last heat, cows are given GnRH. They are preg checked on day 39 and, if open, they receive PGF-2. They are given PGF-2 the next day, GnRH the next day and bred three days after the pregnancy check.

“The purpose is to essentially better pre-synchronize follicular waves before the corpus luteum is regressed for a timed A.I. breeding,” he said. “Hence, what we actually get is a ‘Double Ovsynch.’”

Heifer protocols

“Heifers are bred with sexed semen on the first service as part of their sync protocol,” he explained. “If they don’t conceive, they are then bred with conventional semen on the second and third service. If a heifer has not conceived by the third breeding, they are then placed in a group with a cleanup bull.”

All sync protocols are overseen by the team of vets at CWAS. “They are administered on-farm by our reproductive herdswoman. Compliance is easily determined by conception and preg rate,” Heller said. Cows are pregnancy checked with ultrasound between 32 and 35 days.

Heller offered the following advice for other dairy producers looking to increase pregnancy rates: “Everyone has different factors that play into their rates. My advice would be to discuss with your vet the benefits of looking at a Double OvSynch program or a modified version that works for your dairy operation and your labor situation.

Everything has a cost and benefit analysis. You and your vet are best to determine what is the optimum scenario for your dairy.”

Facility changes

In addition to using the Double OvSynch program, the Hellers moved about 215 of their fresh cows to a new four-row barn, which is 280 feet long and features tunnel ventilation. The rest of the herd is in a six-row barn, built in 2001, which houses four groups of 250 cows each. That barn is 613 feet long with natural ventilation.

“The new facility allows for the cow’s immune system to work better, for the cow to have a better feed conversion rate and for her overall health to be better,” he said. “Thus, when bred the first service in the new building with all these positive factors in play, the repro will naturally be higher.”

In doing this, they have seen a 3 percent higher pregnancy rate in cows that were bred their first service in the new building.

They also ended the use of rBST in June of 2016. Heller thinks this also had a positive impact on herd health. “We have a healthier herd of cows with lower days in milk, thus, naturally, the repro numbers should be higher. Also, the animals’ feed conversion is better, intakes are generally lower, which in effect will allow the cows to settle more efficiently.”

The cows are milked three times a day in a double-18 parallel parlor.

Freestalls are bedded with manure solids. Heller said the manure solids, from a methane digester installed in March 2013, yield huge savings compared to hauling sand on and off the farm. However, keeping the somatic cell count down requires good management. “Our biggest challenge is to keep things dry,” he said.

Heller said the tunnel-ventilation system has allowed them to reduce moisture levels. Stalls are raked by hand every milking (3X) and completely dug out and replaced every six months.

Fans operate on thermostats and humidistats and keep a wind speed of 12 to 17 mph above the cows. Heller said the barn never freezes, and the walls and ceiling do not frost.

The poly sides of the barn let in natural light, and the new facility features all LED lights, which he said operate at 10 percent of the costs of incandescents. They are switching existing lights to LEDs in the older barn as they need to be replaced.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Since constructing a new four-row, tunnel-ventilated barn to house fresh cows, Cody Heller notes a 3 percent gain in pregnancy rate. The other barn on the 1,500-cow dairy is a six-row layout. Photo by Cody Heller. 

PHOTO 2: Cody Heller (left) and Paul Fricke (right) discuss the farm’s pregnancy rate due to the use of the Double OvSynch program during a “talk shop” event at Heller Farms, organized by the Professional Dairy Producers of Wisconsin. Photo by Kelli Boylen.

Kelli Boylen is a freelance writer based in Waterville, Iowa.