Fertility…Boom or Bust?

Does enhanced fertility really drive farm profit or is it a poison chalice?

For such a long time now fertility improvement has been high on the agenda of most UK and undoubtedly most global dairy herds.  Reality says that in general, fertility is still a major challenge with UK average pregnancy rate still at a miserable 14%. That means heifer numbers will be low and you really won’t feel like sexed semen is an option either due to poor fertility performance. Milk output is compromised and your return will be lower.

So is there no down side to improved fertility?

Over the last few years we have worked really hard alongside our progressive farmers to give advice and diets that help to promote increased fertility. This has enabled our farmers to use sexed semen in herd and not just on heifers on many units over the last 8-10 years. The reward has been high numbers of replacements and higher output of sold milk per 365 day period. This specifically drives farm profit.

However, this is increasingly causing us a dilemma, especially on a year like this when forage stocks are tight. That dilemma is excessively high numbers of replacement heifers.

Before you laugh and skip over this article, read on as there is a very valid point to this. We have a number of units where heifer numbers more than exceed milking cow numbers in fact sometimes by as much as 30%. Most of these units are secure financially and so just except the cost, but in an environment where margins are tight, is it good policy to consume cash flow with surplus stock?

Of course some of this hinges around fears over TB losses and that is a very real problem that undoubtedly means people carry extra stock “just in case” and there will also be some looking to expand. There is however, a difference between a safety blanket and excessive numbers. An average 200 cow herd, calving heifers at 24 month average and looking to cull at 30% (which is a reasonably average cull rate) and holding 5% surplus to cover extraordinary occurrences requires 140 heifers on the ground give or take a few calves being born and you could except 150-160 youngstock kicking around at any one time. If however you actually have 260-280 heifers is that a bad thing?

Not if you are looking to expand, but my point is that they are eating and requiring housing management, time, water, bedding, vet and med, electricity etc. and that may be stifling your business. Unfortunately, high numbers of heifers means a higher risk of poor stocking densities, so now numbers increase further due to competition affecting their ability to grow and enter the herd at 24 months. This can lead to variable heifer production and high heifer cull rate in first lactation.

The great thing about a problem like too many heifers is that it isn’t really a problem it’s a massive positive. If we use the information that we have to make the best decisions for our herd, profitability and lifestyle, then we have loads of choices.

Don’t be afraid to sell animals prior to calving. You may not make profit on them but if they are surplus to requirement, then everything else will do better as you have more feed and time and space to manage them properly. On top of that you have a cash injection to boost any improvements that you wish to do to your business.

If you decide to take them through to calving and cash in on them then, make sure you have the facilities, feed and finances to do this without affecting the ones that you really want to keep. Overall good fertility is still top of the pile when it comes to key ingredients required to achieve high profitability. It increases output and gives you the ability to grow your herd or cull on your terms. Evaluate though it’s affect on your business and challenge whether those stock numbers actually make you money.  If they don’t, then find a solution, reduce numbers and reap the rewards that the cash injection will deliver to your business……or put up another shed and gain the benefit that way!

Pete Davis

Pete Davis joined as our first ruminant nutritionist and the original member of the CMC technical team. He combines managing key accounts with a holistic role for the ruminant team. He works closely with chosen partners to continually improve our technical offering and develop new products and ideas for our team to utilise. Pete looks after a number of herds throughout the Southwest. His day-to-day diary can vary from advising customers on extensive grazing to intensive high yielding dairy systems.