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Use of herd management programmes to improve the reproductive performance of dairy cattle

  • S. McDougall (a1), C. Heuer (a2), J. Morton (a3) and T. Brownlie (a1)
Abstract

There has been a long history of herd health and production management programmes in many dairy industries around the world, but evidence for the efficacy of such programmes is limited. In response to a perceived decline in fertility of dairy cows, a herd reproductive management programme (InCalf) was introduced in New Zealand in 2007. This programme uses a management cycle approach that includes an assessment of the current herd status, identification of areas for improvement, development of a plan, implementation of this plan and finally a review process. The programme uses facilitators who work with farmers either in a one-to-one manner or in a formalised group setting that involves a series of meetings over a 12-month period (the farmer action group). The hypothesis that involvement in a reproductive management programme would improve herd reproductive performance was tested using a herd-level controlled randomised study (the National Herd Fertility Study) involving herds in four geographic regions of New Zealand over 2 years. Within each region, herds were ranked on the basis of the 6-week in-calf rate (i.e. the proportion of the herd pregnant in the first 6 weeks of the seasonal breeding programme) in the year preceding commencement of the study and then randomly assigned to be involved in a farmer action group or left as untreated controls. The key outcome variable of the study was the 6-week in-calf rate. Pregnancy diagnosis was undertaken at 12 weeks after the start of the seasonal breeding programme, which allowed determination of conception dates and hence calculation of the 6-week in-calf rate. Additional measurements including heifer live weight and body condition score (pre-calving and pre-mating) were undertaken to test whether treatment resulted in measurable changes in some of the key determinants of herd reproductive performance. Involvement in the farmer action group of InCalf resulted in a 2 percentage point increase in the 6-week in-calf rate (P=0.05). The following additional observations were made in herds involved in the farmer action group relative to control herds: heifers had live weight closer to target; the pre-mating body condition score of cows was higher; and oestrous detection rates were higher. It was concluded that involvement in this herd reproductive management programme improved reproductive outcomes in this New Zealand study. However, to achieve substantial improvements in herd reproductive performance at the regional or national level a greater response to the programme and a high uptake of such programmes is required, as well as use of other industry-level tools such as genetic management programmes.

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Corresponding author
E-mail: smcdougall@anexa.co.nz
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