More than 20% of all cow cullings are due to poor fertility and reproductional issues. How can you overcome this in your dairy herd?
Two breeding experts share their experiences from helping farmers with fertility issues around the world. They update you on the latest solutions for better fertility and reproduction—and give you a sneak peek into future genetic technologies in innovative cattle breeding.
Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager VikingJersey, VikingGenetics
Claus Langdahl, Senior Breeding Manager VikingHolstein, VikingGenetics
Louise Rønn Svane
Poor fertility is one of the main reasons for
culling a cow in dairy herds around the world.
More than 20% of all cullings are related
to poor fertility and reproductional issues.
It's stressful and frustrating struggling with poor fertility.
And it has a huge, long-term impact on the production
and longevity of your dairy herd and ultimately your profit.
To help give us the best tips on
how to overcome poor fertility in your herd,
I've invited two experts on Holstein
and Jersey cows to join me at the studio.
Claus Langdahl, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingHolstein,
and Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingJersey.
They have 20 and 30 years of experience
advising on reproduction in dairy herds.
We'll look at the challenges and
the solutions for better fertility and reproduction
followed by a sneak peak into the latest
genetic technologies in innovative cattle breeding.
This is your BreedCast produced by VikingGenetics.
I'm your host, Louise Roenn Svane.
Hello and welcome, Claus and Peter.
Very nice to have you with us today.
Claus Langdahl, you work with Holstein farmers around the world.
What are the main reasons for poor fertility
and reproduction issues that they come you about?
We see that the Holstein breed in general has been
heavily selected for high production for several decades.
This has been the main focus for many years.
It is an extremely high-producing cow
that we have in the barns today.
...but along with the high production came
also some unfavourable relations to fertility...
...to health traits.
In this case; poor fertility due to
h aving prioritised production way too high
That's the main issue that I hear from farmers.
The cows milk enough.
The issue is getting them pregnant...
...get them bred back so that they are ready for another lactation.
What can poor fertility and reproduction issues result in for the farmer?
It has a huge impact on the everyday life on the farm.
There is the frustration with having to
work a lot with getting the cows bred back.
There is a lot of work related to that.
You need to observe. You need to register a lot.
There are also costs related to that.
You have to buy more semen.
You have to get treatments for your animals
in order to get them ready for the next pregnancy.
And poor fertility is tough for your whole system
because you can lack animals to replace.
So you'll have to let cows stay
longer in the herd than they actually should.
So there's a whole complexity of issues
that arise if you deal with reproduction problems.
Peter, you've travelled the world for the past 30 years,
working with Jersey farmers around the world, advising them etc.
What typical challenges do you see around fertility and reproduction?
I see some of the same challenges that Claus has mentioned.
But for Jerseys maybe less effect of
high production on fertility as in the Holstein breed,
which is known for its high production of milk - high volumes
But still it is one of the major culling reasons
and the second largest for the Jersey breed - next to production.
For that reason, it is very important that we focus on this
because we don't want the farmers to face unvoluntary cullings.
We want them to make the decisions themselves
as to which animals do I want to cull.
...because I have better younger animals
that I would rather focus on and breed with.
So unvoluntary cullings is certainly not what breeders want,
and that is what some farmers
around the world face because of poor fertility.
What are the challenges around fertility? I know there is something about timing and insemination in regards to fertility.
Yes, it is something that we focus on quite a lot, because
earlier we said that a cow should give birth to a calf once a year.
And now some farmers prolong the lactation to make better profit,
have a longer and higher milk production
The ideal time to breed a cow is not necessarily as it was earlier.
And it can differ based on the management conditions.
So whether you produce in tropical or subtropical conditions,
or here in the Nordic countries...
...could actually also affect the decisions on when to breed the cow.
What is the ultimate consequence of
poor fertility and reproductional issues in herds?
I just wanted to add an extra element
just to put extra value to why this is important...
...if you look at the culling reasons for the Holstein,
it is 22% actually in our conditions here in the Nordic countries
That is the reason if you ask the farmer why they cull their cows.
Like Peter says; in Jersey it's an issue. In Holstein, it's an issue.
I think it is an overall issue in our conditions,
but definitely worldwide also.
It is present all over.
So culling is actually one of the ultimate consequences.
What I'm hearing is that poor fertility is
a combination between genetics, management and environment
- all these different priorities we have in a herd.
Let's try to look at ways to overcome these challenges.
I know that those are the solutions that you work with.
Peter, when a Jersey farmer comes to you and says
he's struggling with fertility and reproduction in his herd...
What are some of the first things
that you recommend that he takes at look at?
First of all, he needs to take a look at the genetics in his herd
...and also the genetics that he has been
using over the past years affecting the current herd.
He also needs to take the current conditions into consideration.
Is the genetic level of the bulls that I work with
affected by the environmental factors?
...or other conditions coming from outside?
But the genetics is definitely very important.
We have seen that some of the populations have
actually had a negative genetic trend over the last years.
We try to include both the female fertility
and other traits of economic importance
- especially production - into our overall breeding value;
NTM (Nordic Total Merit).
NTM includes all and tries to balance out the involved traits
so that you get progress for all of them.
In that way we have manage - even with good progress for production - also to have a positive trend for fertility.
Claus, what if I came to you as a
Holstein farmer saying that I am struggling with this?
I know that poor fertility is one of the biggest pains for Holstein farmers.
Where would you start?
What would you look at?
First of all, as Peter said, I would put some focus on the genetics.
That's the foundation of everything you work with in your herd.
It needs to be optimized as much as possible.
Knowing that this is a complex matter where management, environment
- whatever we offer these animals everyday,
is of course affecting this a lot.
Actually, the genetic part is very important.
What we see is that there is a good response to
this balanced breeding, as Peter also mentions.
Keep focusing on high production since
this is where the farmer makes his income
But definitely to cut down the costs also,
for example via better reproduction
Not be too fixed on one way of breeding,
but keep the overall view and the balance in the animals
so they can last this high production for a long time.
What are some of the examples you've seen
either on the home market
or out in the world where you visited other farms as well,
...of a farmer that really turning his business around
by focusing on health, fertility and production?
The Nordic farmers have realised the need to have
these indices in focus when they do the selection.
Even though it's a relatively small part of what
you experience in the animals that is actually the genetics...
...you can easily see that there are
some trends in the way that the animals react.
We have had a fine genetic progress in production, but
have also realised that the kilos of milk - they are producing a lot -
...they are hard-working animals.
At the same time, we have also experienced
that they have become more healthy and more fertile.
That's a perfect example of balancing this.
For example, we've seen that if we look
at one of the important traits in the fertility concept;
...the time from you start inseminating
until she is actually pregnant or bred back...
we have reduced that with about six days
on cows during the last seven to eight years,
which is a tremendous change actually for
a trait as low heritably as fertility is.
You can easily detect this
genetic progress in the herd when you go there.
A comment to what Claus mentions about the insemination period - from when you make the decision until the cow is pregnant.
That is one of the subindices.
We have our overall female fertility index.
But underlying that are several subindices
and some of them are extremely important.
Especially this with the insemination period.
But there are also number of insemination
and days from calving to first insemination.
There is a group of underlying subindices
that you can also make use of.
Now you mention the indices
- how is the data gathered in the Nordic countries....
that gives a farmer options to looking
into how to select the genetics?
The data is collected from several sources
- especially from AI technicians.
The AI technicians do all the recording in connection with
the breeding of the animals and also in pregnancy checks.
Then we do some registrations and veterinarians of course
do as well when we have diseases in relation to reproduction.
Several sources and a good tradition for it.
We obtain nearly all the data that is possible
and have done that for more than 40 years.
Our database is extremely huge and enables us
to make these overall indices and subindices on fertility.
Claus, how do I select the right genetics to boost
the fertility in my Holstein herd or in any herd I may have?
The main approach is to look at whatever
kind the ranking bulls are in your area.
Here in our area, we have the NTM,
which is an overall economic index
You will find similar total merit indices around the world.
In the NTM that we believe in here,
we have fertility included with a relatively high weight
Picking animals with high-ranking NTM will often
automatically lead you in the direction of good fertility bulls.
Then you can decide if you want to go even further...
...and for your own farm make a strategy
saying that I prefer to put extra value on this trait,
because this is an issue for me.
Maybe I can do with less production
and then I can prioritise fertility even higher.
And optimize that trait even more.
Start out with the high-ranking bulls on NTM and pick among those
- the profile you prefer for fertility.
That will be the optimal way
to get the best genetics for your herd.
Peter, what's it like around the world in other countries?
How is fertility prioritised and valued?
Fertility is valued very high no matter where you go
in the world when visiting Jersey breeders.
Not all have the same tools as we have,
...and as Claus mentioned with the Holstein breed - the Holstein breed is huge...
...and in nearly all populations around the world,
they have breeding values to work with.
That's not the case for Jerseys.
In small Jersey populations,
not all have breeding values on the females.
An example is that Norway and France
didn't have until they joined us last year.
You could of course pick and choose bulls
if you have the impression that this cow family is very infertile
...then focus on bulls that are very fertile
or breeding good female fertility.
If you do not have breeding values on your animals,
you are really struggling to solve the problems or challenges you have.
Of course you can genomically test your animals
- test them in our system,
...otherwise at least use bulls
that are highly ranked for female fertility
Be very specific in which type of bull you use.
Use from the populations having the positive ranks
and having the highest international rankings for female fertility.
Claus, if you were to summarize
what are some natural steps for me to take...
...to get well on the way of better fertility and reproduction in my herd.
As a farmer, you should be sure that
- with open eyes - you know what you are doing.
Make a strategy for your herd.
Just like everything else you do on your farm,
you need to have a good plan and you need to follow that plan.
That strategy will definitely differ from farm to farm,
but some of it will also be the same.
Make sure you prioritise what is needed for your system.
It might also be health traits that you put extra weight on.
It can also be solids and milk or whatever.
But I am sure in every case
there will be a value of keeping focus on fertility.
Make this strategy and follow it - I think that is the critical thing in this.
I think most farmers agree what they prefer
- what kind of cows they like;
an easy-going cow that produces a lot of milk and stays healthy.
I think that is the kind of cow farmers like to work with,
but there are different ways to get to that.
Of course also look at where you source your genetics
- that there is a focus of highly valuable genetics
when it comes to the health and fertility concepts.
We've looked at some of the challenges
around poor fertility and also the solutions.
Now I think it will be fun to take a look ahead.
Peter, when you look into the future, what does the future
genetics look like and how will that impact fertility and reproduction?
I think at least we will keep the current pace
or the genetic trend for female fertility.
Keep focusing on having very good female fertility.
I think we will - in near future - add male fertility so you can focus on both when you optimize your reproduction results in your herd.
Male fertility is a matter of which bulls are giving the best fertility results.
Which semen is giving you the best fertility result in your herd.
A way of developing this is to introduce the batch coding.
And we have done that.
That means that we can follow the semen from when it's produced,
from what happens in the barn,
the day the bull produces the semen,
what happens to the semen in the laboratory,
what happens after the laboratory when it goes
to the AI technician and into the cow in the herd.
We can trace everything back
and we can optimize on all the procedures
from the barn, through the laboratory and to what happens when AI technicians or farmers themselves do the inseminations.
In that way, we can optimize the male fertility,
but we can also optimize female fertility.
Male fertility and the quality of semen will be affected by this.
Just in addition to this, the speed we have
today in the breeding programme with genomic bulls...
and having huge replacement of new genetics coming in all the time
there we will actually see a natural selection for better semen quality
because if a bull is not good in semen quality,
there will be other ones taking over quite soon.
There is a kind of a natural selection in
the semen quality as well in the system we run today,
which will of course also benefit on farm level.
Now that we're talking fertility and reproduction,
there is quite a buzz around sexed semen
which will actually be a topic for our next BreedCast
How can sexed semen be an additional tool to consider
when breeding for better fertility and reproduction?
That's a really interesting change that we see these years.
We are moving fast towards more use
of sexed semen on dairy animals.
And it has a logical reason for this big change.
It opens up for a lot of opportunities on farm level...
...to make decisions to optimize your herd in a much better way.
I think it is relevant in this topic that we talk about
here to underline that you can do a lot of things,
but you are almost always
depending on good reproduction.
If you do not get your animals bred back, then you are in trouble.
Everything from there can be improved,
but you need to have that as a focus.
Fertilty in your animals so you can get them into production, you can have them replaced in the right speed and so on.
That's crucial in this, but that's also what we see.
We see a lot of skilled farmers.
They are very good.
There is a lot of technique connected to it these days to
help support the farmers in the management.
We also see good trends genetically
so we are moving the breeds in the right direction.
It's ready to take the next step to use these
newer tools with sexed semen in a more efficient way.
Peter, any closing thoughts from you?
It makes good sense to focus on male fertility, batch coding.
When working with sexed semen,
it's even more important to try to optimize all procedures
so that we are getting the same results
as we get with conventional semen.
Then we can be sure that our sexed products
will make just as good result as our conventional products.
We are getting closer and closer
and I think we will be there shortly.
To learn more about sexed semen
that is actually the next episode in our BreedCast.
Much more to learn on that topic.
Thank you so much.
That's all we had for our BreedCast today.
We have looked at how to overcome poor fertility in dairy herds.
And thanks to you, we have discussed some of the new technologies available and coming on the horizon.
If you would like to learn more, please visit our Reproduction Best Practices area at vikinggenetics.com in the Management Tips menu.
Thank you, Claus Langdahl and Peter Larson
very much for sharing your insights with us.
Thank you to everyone for listening.
If you have an idea for a topic in cattle breeding
you would like us to focus on in a future BreedCast,
please reach out via the VikingGenetics website
or send us a message on our Facebook page.
My name is Louise Roenn Svane.
Please join me for the next BreedCast on how sexed semen can
make your dairy business even more profitable and sustainable.