While heifers are typically the easiest animals in a dairy herd to get pregnant, some herds do struggle with heifer fertility, and many have room for improvement. Katie Ballard, researcher at the W.H. Miner Agricultural Research Institute near Chazy, New York, points out the following common challenges with heifer fertility:

  • Heat detection efficiency – Heat detection efficiency on heifers should be at least 10 percent higher than that of mature cows in the herd. Often, the more remote location of heifers on the dairy can result in less time spent observing for heats. 
  • Heat detection errors – Studies have shown that between 5 and 30 percent of inseminations are performed on animals that are not in heat. Inadequate lighting, crowded pens and financial incentives for workers to identify heats are some possible reasons for these errors.
  • Skill of the inseminator – Even well-trained and experienced inseminators have varying degrees of breeding accuracy and success. It takes even more skill to carefully thread the breeding pipette through a much narrower cervix in heifers. Ballard cites research that shows better conception rates if semen is deposited in the uterus or uterine horns versus the cervix. 

Ballard adds that sometimes the skill of the inseminator is highly dependent on the facilities in which he or she is expected to breed heifers. She notes that communication with the herd owner is important, and that efforts should be made to create a heifer-breeding environment that is safe, well-lit, and has adequate restraint for breeding animals.

Read more of Ballard’s comments on heifer fertility.