Teamwork leads to higher pregnancy rates, which leads to more calves to replenish and even grow your herd.

Imagine, a herd pregnancy rate of 25 percent!

“A herd pregnancy rate of 25 percent is rare — and rarer yet for a herd of this size,” veterinarian John Lee says of his clients at Joe Homen & Sons Dairy Farm near Merced, Calif. The Homen dairy has 1,327 cows and does an outstanding job with its reproductive program.

“Our reproduction is kicking butt right now,” says co-owner Frank Homen.

But it wasn’t always that way. A few years ago, the dairy’s pregnancy rate was 16 percent. Frank Homen set up a synchronized-breeding program, and did everything he could to ensure that each cow got her breeding shots on time. Still, there was a missing link. In May 2003, the farm hired a new AI technician and things really started to improve.  

Integrating the talents of a skilled AI technician proved to the Homens that a high pregnancy rate doesn’t just happen on sheer will — it takes a team approach.  

A worthy goal                           
Some of you may look at the Homens’ pregnancy rate of 25 percent and scoff: “Surely someone is fudging that number!” But the number is legitimate, and a closer look reveals that the Homens do a more accurate job in calculating pregnancy rate than most farms.

The pregnancy rate at Joe Homen & Sons Dairy is arrived at using the standard 21-day pregnancy risk calculation done by the Bredsum module in Dairy Comp 305, points out John Lee, of the Atwater (Calif.) Veterinary Clinic. Basically, it means dividing the number of pregnancies by the number of eligible heat cycles that cows accumulate once they pass the voluntary waiting period. (See “What is pregnancy rate?” above.)  

Their 25-percent pregnancy rate is figured on an annualized basis, meaning it is an average for the previous 12 months. At times, their annualized average pregnancy rate has risen to as high as 27 percent.

A 25-percent pregnancy rate far exceeds the national average of 15 percent. It takes a lot of hard work, but the economic benefit is worth it. The Homens figure that over the next seven years they can double the size of their herd through internal growth alone. 

And, each step up in pregnancy rate has real economic value. It all depends on the milk price and various other factors, “but we usually come up with somewhere between $15 to $20 per percentage point (improvement),” says Steve Eicker, veterinarian with Valley Agricultural Software. So, going from 14 percent to 18 percent is worth about $75 per cow per year.

Teamwork is key
The Homens have made reproductive management a top priority. 

Their dairy is on a synchronized-breeding program known as Ovsynch. In other herds, an owner might tell an employee to oversee the program, but Frank Homen has taken it upon himself to make up a list every day indicating which cows need their breeding shots. His oversight adds a vital element of consistency.

“Our veterinarians told us the biggest downside to having an Ovsynch program” is the risk of not giving every cow her breeding shots on time, says Frank Homen. “If you miss cows, it’s like shooting yourself in the foot.”

And, the Homens do everything they can to prepare the cows for the AI technician’s arrival. Each day, around 5:10 a.m., the person who feeds the cows begins making the rounds. Often, the cows are eating when the AI technician shows up around 5:30 to 5:45 a.m. Basically, all he has to do is concentrate on getting cows bred without having to worry about chasing down animals. If a cow needs to be pushed into a headlock, he can get the feeder’s assistance. 

“The cows are locked up on schedule; the condition of the cows is good,” says G.K. “Buck” Buchanan, associate vice president of domestic marketing/West Coast for Genex Cooperative. “It makes our job so much easier.”

“It’s a team operation,” says John Rodrigues, also of Genex and AI technician for Joe Homen & Sons Dairy Farm.

Teamwork is definitely one of the common demonimators in herds with high pregnancy rates, says Jim Martin, reproductive specialist with Accelerated Genetics. Besides teamwork, he finds that these herds also pay great attention to detail, such as making sure that the cows in a synchronized-breeding program get their breeding shots on time. And, they are consistent. “Once they get a good system in place, they repeat it over, and over, and over,” he adds.

Involve outside advisers
At Long View Dairy in Jerome, Idaho, the pregnancy rate exceeds 24 percent on an annualized basis — again, calculated on the Dairy Comp 305 program that keeps track of all eligible cows and the number of heat cycles.

Long View is not a state-of-the-art facility; it is a 25-year-old drylot dairy farm with 1,200 cows. Any accomplishments in the reproductive program come mainly as a result of excellent management. 

Team members at Long View — led by herd manager Jennifer Wilson — make sure that all cows receive their breeding shots in a synchronized-breeding program on time. They try to give every cow the opportunity to be bred by 67 days in milk.

It’s critical under these circumstances to get the cows through the close-up and transition periods in good shape.  

At Long View, the herd’s nutritionist has put the close-up dry cows on an anionic-salt program to create the right metabolic balance. The feeding crew will add some water to the ration of both close-up and fresh cows in order to make it more palatable and consistent, plus it helps reduce sorting by making the feed particles stick together more. In a Western environment, where a lot of dry hay is feed, the added moisture can play an important role, explains Dan Kluth, dairy nutritionist for Standard Nutrition in Jerome, Idaho.

Long View even has a haystack designated for the close-up dry cows in order to provide a more consistent ration.

The herd’s nutritionist, veterinarian and work crew deserve a lot of the credit. “They are giving me healthy cows to work with,” says Long View Dairy’s AI technician, Steve Bohm, of ABS Global.   

Get people to accept goals
When a farm makes the kind of progress that Homen Dairy or Long View Dairy have made, it’s usually because the owners have made reproductive management a top priority.

At Long View, the breakthrough came in the summer of 2001, when herd veterinarian John Day talked to the farm’s owners about implementing a synchronized-breeding program. Day said there were opportunities for improvement. Day put forth the goal of having 27 percent of all cows pregnant within the first estrous cycle following the voluntary waiting period, and the owners were receptive. (The farm has actually exceeded this goal, with an annualized first-cycle pregnancy rate of 42.7 percent.)

Goal-setting also was instrumental in the success achieved at Pleasant View Farm in Blain, Pa., where the pregnancy rate has risen as high as 24.5 percent in recent years.    

At Pleasant View, herd owner Logan Bower knows that in order to achieve a high pregnancy rate, heat detection must be a high priority. So, he encourages employees to fill out 3-by-5-inch note cards when they see a cow in heat. For every cow that an employee reports in heat, Bower gives that employee $1 in phone-card credits or extra cash.

Referring to some of the note cards on his desk, he says, “Here’s what I like: Three different guys say they saw the same cow in standing heat, so I’m really confident that the cow is in heat.” He doesn’t mind paying a few extra dollars to find these cows.

Obviously, Bower has bought into the power of teamwork. 

The reason why Bower has achieved a high pregnancy rate is that “he pays attention to trends and notices right away if something is going the wrong way,” says Kirk Sattazahn, central marketing manager for Select Sires. “And, he’s not afraid to make changes if he needs to make a change,” Sattazahn adds.

Make it a top priority
Owners and managers like Bower have learned that a high pregnancy rate is achievable if they have made reproductive management a top priority and conveyed that sense of priority to their advisers and employees.  

Indeed, many of the farms that have enrolled in the AltaPreg program offered by Alta California — a holistic, team approach to reproductive management that includes herd health, nutrition, environment and other components — have improved their pregnancy rates by five percentage points or more, says John Azevedo, sales manager at Alta California, the marketing arm of Alta Genetics in California and Nevada. 

You, too, should consider a teamwork approach to higher pregnancy rates.

What is pregnancy rate?

For years, we have heard that the way to figure pregnancy rate is by this formula: heat detection rate x conception rate = pregnancy rate

But, that oft-quoted formula is incorrect, says Steve Eicker, veterinarian with Valley Agricultural Software. 

“The goal of pregnancy rate is to estimate the probability or risk of an open, eligible cow becoming pregnant within a 21-day period,” he says. “It is best estimated by counting the number of pregnancies and dividing by the number of eligible cycles.”

For instance, a cow gets pregnant at 122 days in milk, following a 60-day voluntary waiting period. She has one pregnancy divided by three eligible 21-day heat cycles, so her pregnancy rate is one-third or 33 percent.