Everyone in the dairy industry is breathing a collective sigh of relief. The drought induced feed prices are ending and new crop corn and beans are flowing to the dairies, at substantially lower prices. That being said, feed costs will still be double what it was just a few years ago, while milk price is only up about 30%. Margins will continue to be tight and management must find every opportunity to maximize performance in order to increase margins and profits. One of the key elements to profitability on the dairy is reproduction.

Outstanding reproduction will maximize milk per cow by lowering days in milk and keep a higher percentage of the herd at peak. Also impacted will be culling, lowering reproductive culls and allowing opportunity for heifer and dairy sales. More calve will be available for sales or improving the quality of the herd, or both. Feed efficiency will improve due to higher milk production and less stale cows in the herd. All in all, depending on the current reproductive numbers of the herd, there can be $1-$2/cwt added to the bottom line by taking the reproductive program to elite status.

There are five main fundamentals that determine the quality of the reproductive program, transition, nutrition, cow comfort, heat detection, and insemination. All are of equal importance.

Transition is the key to many facets of herd performance. An elite transition program maximizes production, reproduction, and feed efficiency, while minimizing body condition loss, and early culls. Transition starts in the last month of the dry period, on most likely the most important ration on the dairy. The closeup ration and the number of days cows are on this ration are critical to a smooth transition. A flawless transition program vaults cattle into production by keeping intakes as high as possible both pre and post calving. High intakes insure low incidences of ketosis associated with rapid weight loss. Excess weight loss (all cows lose some weight in the first 20 days of lactation) is directly correlated with low reproductive performance. By maximizing intakes in early lactation, cows should begin to get to positive energy balance by 20 days in milk.

The three most important keys to a great transition are a properly balanced closeup ration, Number of days on that ration, and the cow density in the closeup pen. Cows should be on the closeup ration at least 21 days and first calf heifers 28 days. Research has shown no ill effects of leaving cattle on the closeup ration for more than 30 days. Research has also shown the importance of “under crowding” in the closeup pen. The best overall performance is achieved when density is at 100% or less for the pen. This is the area most often neglected on most dairies. Most transition pens and facilities were designed for less cows than are now flowing through them.

The dairy nutritionist has a key role in the performance of the reproductive program. Starting with the closeup ration and continuing to the lactating rations leading up to breeding. Getting the cow to calve in with no metabolic problems, go on to a lactating ration with no digestive issues, and increase intake fast enough to minimize body condition loss, is quite a complicated balancing act. Making all of these transitions smoothly is critical to elite performance.

While the main nutritional emphasis should be on a properly balanced ration, there are a few ingredients available to enhance reproduction. Vitamin E and selenium in combination have shown to help reproductive performance. Organic selenium or selenium yeast has been a major improvement over the inorganic. Organic copper, zinc and manganese also have shown positive results for reproduction.

Omega 3’s, very popular in human nutrition, have shown excellent results in dairy cattle reproduction. Omega 3’s help with pregnancy retention and lower early embryonic death. Fish meal was probably the first product to deliver Omega 3’s to dairy rations. After fish meal became too expensive for dairy rations, flaxseed and fish oil protected in by-pass fats have become options for nutritionists and producers. A relatively new, but promising development in Omega 3’s is algae. There are now high Omega 3 algae available to give one more option.

Keeping with the theme of high intakes to minimize condition loss and maximize milk production, is cow comfort. Cow comfort would probably not be at the top of most lists of critical elements of elite reproductive programs. However in order for a highly productive dairy cow to operate at maximum efficiency, she needs to lay down 12-15 hours per day. Providing a comfortable surface for her to lay and chew her cud is vital to top performance. Remember, elite performance is caused by lack of stress, not a cause of stress. Uncomfortable resting areas cause cows to stand more, which takes away nutrients from production and reproduction. Excess standing also contributes to hoof problems, which can affect heat detection.

The human element comes in to play in this next vital step to improving reproductive performance. Heat detection is the most common hole in a lot of breeding programs. There have been numerous programs developed to aid or eliminate heat detection. There are plenty of Ovsynch protocols to choose from. The question is which heat detection method will bring the most return for the dollars spent? All of these have a cost, with some being much more expensive than others.

Some of the most successful reproductive programs have very simple and cost effective programs in place to improve heat detection. Prostaglandin once per week, with diligent heat detection is used on one herd that averages around 30% preg rate. That is a very high return on investment. Don’t forget the highest quality follicles are formed during the dry period. Programs which try to utilize these early follicles will be the most efficient. Waiting to begin breeding until 70 days completely wastes the opportunity to use these high quality follicles.

Employee training is a critical key to improving both heat detection and insemination efficiency. Outside breeding services usually provide their technicians with constant training. Dairies with on farm breeders need to do the same. Training and retaining employees is and will continue to be vitally important to maximize the performance in all areas of the dairy.

One relatively new development that could possibly help in reproduction is early pregnancy diagnosis. Detecting open cows at 25-30 days, and getting them back in the breeding herd can improve preg rate significantly. Ultrasound has been used successfully for a while. Milk and blood pregnancy tests are available now and getting more use. These are possibly more tools to improve your reproductive performance.

Most readers will probably notice that a lot of time was spent on herdsman ship items and very little time on breeding protocols and the actual breeding. That is because it is impossible to have outstanding reproductive performance if the events leading up to breeding are subpar. That would be like ignoring good crop production practices and expecting the inoculant to manufacture top quality silage. The transition, cow comfort and nutrition make or break the repro program.

Elite reproductive status is key to maximizing the potential of the herd. Like most key factors in dairy production there are many fundamentals that are involved in the performance or lack thereof of the reproductive program. Failure in one area will result in less than expected performance. All of the key factors have to be accounted for to excel.