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Success begins and ends with fertility

Success begins and ends with fertility was the theme of just one of the many dairy-oriented presentations offered at Alltech’s 29th Annual International Symposium, held in Lexington, Ky. in May. Offering their knowledge and views on the subject of reproductive efficiency were, from left: Dr. Maurice Boland from University College in Dublin, Ireland; Dr. Niel Karrow, associate professor of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada; Keith Heikes, senior vice president of product development and marketing at Genex Cooperative; Dr. Mike Hutjens, professor emeritus at the University of Illinois; and Cathy Spiers, co-owner of Shiloh Dairy in Brillion, Wisconsin.

By DIETER KRIEG
Farmshine Editor

LEXINGTON, Ky. -- If global demand for milk and dairy products continues to grow as is currently forecast, the world's cows will need to produce an additional 200 million metric tons of milk by 2028. Dairy farmers will have a hard time meeting those goals, however, unless they can increase fertility of their cows. With infertility being among the top five reasons for involuntary culling, global animal health and nutrition company Alltech is not only concerned, but looking for answers.

At the Alltech Symposium held here at the Lexington Convention Center in May, five panelists were up on stage to offer their thoughts on improving dairy cattle fertility. They were Cathy Speirs of Shiloh Dairy in Wisconsin, Keith Heikes from Genex, Mike Hutjens from the University of Illinois, Niel Karrow from the University of Guelph and Maurice Boland from University College in Ireland.

With the theme being “Success begins and ends with fertility,” program chairman Dan Weiland from Alltech, USA, provided the challenging overview of what was in store:

"All this money is being spent on improving genetic potential only to lose that cow after two, or if we're lucky, three lactations. As we strive for more milk, will our cows become increasingly difficult to rebreed and if so, will we have enough heifers available to restock our herds?

Each of the five presenters took aim at the topic from their own perspective, with Cathy Speirs providing the only on-farm view. She and her husband, Gordon, and their two sons have 1800 cows milking with an average of 90 pounds per cow per day. Her first comment after spending just a day at the Symposium was: "I've been hanging out with the right people." It was a reference to the vast pool of useful information that can be gleaned at the annual event. She then proceeded to describe a calf raising program that left little to chance. "We follow all of the protocols," she affirmed, noting that a cow's productivity is directly affected by her life as a calf.

A trained veterinary technician, Mrs. Speirs works closely with the farm’s veterinarians on herd health and manages the calf, heifer and breeding programs. The herd has a 26 percent pregnancy rate and all cows and heifers are bred to high genomic bulls. Shiloh Dairy has sold several bulls into A.I. and is breeding for future sales of dairy bulls, as well as high genomic heifers and embryos.

"Our calves are raised under roof in hutches and they're fed at the same time with the same amount at the same temperature and same composition, but seasonally adjusted," she explained. Warm water is also offered to get them to drink more. To guard against spreading bacteria, boots are always washed before and after entering a hutch. Also, all calf bottles are machine-washed. Vaccination and other health-related precautions are strictly followed.

Calving pens are not shared by heifers and cows. Each have their own freshening quarters to reduce stress on the animal. "If you don't manage for stress during the transition period, you set yourself up for problems throughout her lactation," Mrs. Speirs explained. Also, the Speirs will not move a fresh heifer or cow out of the fresh pen unless she has a negative blood ketone test.

Strict as the protocols are at the family’s Shiloh Dairy, Mrs. Speirs concedes that there's no magic bullet for fertility and there's nothing to be gained by keeping a cow around that has reproductive problems.

Maurice Boland, who has held numerous positions at University College in Dublin, Ireland, is currently the director of the college’s Teagasc Partnership. An authority on agriculture and food development, Teagasc covers a broad spectrum of rural goals and challenges, linking human resources to find solutions and directions more efficiently. Speaking to a mostly dairy audience at the Symposium, Dr. Boland affirmed that as a cow's production goes up, there's a decline in fertility. High producers are commonly more susceptible to stress, notably lameness, mastitis and metritis, he explained. "We have bred for production at the expense of health and fertility," he declared.

Dr. Boland’s proposed solutions to fertility problems centered on Docosahexaenoic acid (DHA), an omega-3 fatty acid. Research shows it has the ability to improve and enhance fertility. Aside from being sourced from cold water fish, DHA is also commercially manufactured from microalgae. Further, the future of animal nutrition holds promises with concepts known as proteomics, metabolomics and transcriptomics. Also, genomics and sexed semen are technologies which will bring future first-service conception rates to at least 50 percent, Boland predicted.

Keith Heikes, who is senior vice president of product development and marketing at Genex, told the assembled group that A.I. studs across the United States are challenged to offer health and fitness traits for their bulls because of a lack of information and inconsistent definitions. Consequently, no national database exists. Further, health and fitness traits have comparatively low heritability and therefore the rate of change is slow. And not to be forgotten is that environmental factors play a significant role in this area. He's optimistic that genomics will be of high value as the industry moves forward on selection criteria for health and fitness because an animal's genotype is good for all traits.

Mike Hutjens drove home the point that sound nutrition is most certainly a key to reproductive efficiency as it affects body condition and how well the cow (or heifer) is prepared for the transition period. Very important in all of this are organic trace minerals, including selenium, zinc, copper, and manganese, he said. All selenium should be sourced from organic selenium, he emphasized. Another point: Polyunsaturated fatty acids can stimulate progesterone production and strengthen cell membranes.

Niel Karrow's take-home points were health and nutrition related as he suggested that more sustainable sources of Omega 3, such as algae, would be very helpful. Also, he proposes neonatal response to pathogenic challenges.

At the end of the session, the panelists were asked what the biggest bottleneck might be that prevents a dairy from reaching its fertility potential. Some boiled it down to a single word: management. Mike Hutjens used a different word: people. “Protocols have to be followed … it's people,” he assured.

Mrs. Speirs responded: "We dial in on performance of cows and people," then adding an emphatic "yes" that it is unequivocally possible to breed for type and fertility, countering Heikes’ remark that a smaller cow is more desirable today.

As the program concluded, the results of a survey appeared on the large screens at the front of the hall. So, what's the biggest bottleneck that prevents a dairy farm from reaching its fertility potential? According to the survey, nutrition is the hands-down culprit, accounting for 40% of the blame while genetics, management and "other" were each credited with 20%.