Many dairy farms have made great strides in reproduction. Looking through data from the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council (DCRC), a 20 percent pregnancy rate would have been considered elite just a decade ago when evaluating its awards program. A number north of 20 percent would have landed a herd in the winner’s circle for the organization’s esteemed reproduction awards.
Fast-forward one decade and 30 percent pregnancy rates don’t even move a herd into the second round of awards judging. These days, the very best U.S. dairy herds have pregnancy rates in the 40 percent range and are even pushing 50 percent.
To be fair, that’s the top 1 percent of all U.S. dairy herds. However, the numbers illustrate the progress made on reproduction. Some advancements are due to reproductive therapies. Another portion is due to genetic progress. Additional progress is the result of heat detection technologies.
Organic herds face challenges
Genetically speaking, there is an antagonistic genetic relationship between milk production and fertility. That means that as we select for higher milk production, we select against improved fertility. That situation impacted all dairy cows. However, organic dairy farms have faced a greater challenge because those farmers cannot use reproductive therapies that conventional counterparts can use on their farms.
To take a deeper look into the matter, Colorado state’s Pablo Pinedo authored the paper “Unique reproductive challenges for certified organic dairy herds.”
In that paper, he points out data that indicates 27 percent of all organic herds have crossbred dairy cows. In theory, that crossbred vigor should aid reproductive efficiency. By comparison, less than 10 percent of U.S. dairy herds report having crossbred dairy cows.
Also, lower milk production levels should allow for enhanced reproduction. In some documented studies, dairy cows on organic dairies produced 15 to 30 percent less milk than their conventional counterparts.
Even with these potentially positive reproductive modifiers, cows on organic dairy farms suffer from reproductive woes. Pregnancy rates ranged from 11 to 17 percent in datasets from the Dairy Records Management System. This data comes from 184 herds.
Lastly, as the genetic tide has turned on reproductive efficiency, organic dairy farms may not be benefiting from advancements. That’s because A.I. usage rates are lower on organic dairy farms. In one Northeast study, only 63 percent of organic herds used A.I. compared to 89 percent among conventional farms in the same region. Another study found that only 53 percent of organic dairy farms conducted any form of pregnancy diagnosis after breeding.
A working solution
While organic farms cannot use prostaglandins or GnRH, there are other options. Many new technologies help track activity and determine if a cow is ready to be bred. That may be the largest opportunity for organic dairy farms to improve reproduction. Using better genetics that rank among the elite for traits such as Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR) will help in the long run, too. Finally, closely tracking herd health will benefit long-term reproductive success.