"We like to keep an eye on our reproductive program, so when the University of Wisconsin Extension was looking for farms to participate in its new Repro Money program, we thought we'd give it a try," says Mystic Valley Dairy owner Mitch Breunig.
The 430-cow Sauk City dairy already achieved a 25%t pregnancy rate before enrolling in the program, but "We wanted to know if there was a way we could save some money, to be more efficient with our reproduction," he explains. So Breunig invited the dairy's veterinarian, nutritionist, breeder and a key employee to participate in monthly Repro Money meetings.
Meanwhile a similar scenario occurred at Tim Enge's 400-cow dairy near Lodi. Enge and his management team that included his veterinarian, nutritionist and key farm personnel also participated in the Repro Money program. The dairy began its program stint with an 18%, 21-day pregnancy rate.
"We weren't having huge issues with reproduction," says Enge, "but we wanted to see if we could do better."
The Repro Money program was developed at the University of Wisconsin as a decision-support system to help dairy producers calculate and compare the economic value of dairy reproductive programs.
Repro Money is team-based and farmer-directed with reproduction at the center of the program, says Connie Cordoba, University of Wisconsin Extension reproductive management specialist.
Producers receive the resources and tools needed to make better management decisions regarding the reproductive management of their farm. The goal is to help dairies make the best economic decisions given their individual situations.
With that in mind, the first order of business for the participants was to determine which parameters each dairy and its advisors would track and the goals for each item.
Mystic Valley Dairy decided to monitor the dairy's 21-day pregnancy rate, evaluate the cost of a pregnancy and determine the value of heifers to see if it was more cost-effective to raise all heifers to breeding size or sell selected heifers for additional income.
Enge and his team elected to point their focus toward transition cow management, transition cow comfort and revisiting the farm's synchronization protocols.
Since Mystic Valley Dairy already had a good reproductive track record, Breunig and his team decided not to make any significant changes to protocols and programs in place. It was a classic case of "if it's not broken, don't fix it." But they did tweak a few things with immediate results.
"We do herd checks once a week," he explains. "But we didn't always have all the cows ready when the veterinarian was ready. We'd spend as much or more time dealing with the last few cows that we had to find and put in headlocks as it took for the first 10 to 15 cows on the list. It was an inefficient use of our vet's time, and our time and money.
"Now we make it a priority to have all cows ready for herd check, and we get done an hour faster than before," Breunig says.
Had the team not met, the tweak may not have happened.
For Enge, adjustments to freestalls in transition cow areas to make them more comfortable, bedding increases and more time spent observing transition cows were the result of the team's advice. The changes were aimed at improving a lot of little things during transition, he says. "The main idea was to try to head problems off here before they became bigger problems, especially later in lactation." The dairy also shifted the timing of its synchronization protocols which led to improved success.
Time well spent
The time spent with that group of advisors was well worth it, Breunig says, despite juggling conflicting schedules, the fact that there's a time lag when dealing with reproductive data and that it's not always easy to show a clear cause-and-effect relationship between actions and reproductive performance.
Still, there is a real benefit to everyone getting feedback from other team members at the same time in the same place, he believes.
"We could talk as a group about practices or technologies they'd seen work—or not work—on other dairies, they could focus on their area of expertise and also give feedback to the team members who were experts in other areas," Breunig says.
Enge agrees. "The input from our team was really helpful," he says. "They talked about things we already knew about, like nutrition's impact on transition, but we didn't realize just how important these things actually were.
"The experience helps you initiate the steps you need to take to get better," he adds.
Plus, the sessions enabled each dairy to delve into the financial aspects of its reproductive program. For Enge, the assorted small changes added up to a big change in reproductive performance. The dairy improved its 18%, 21-day pregnancy rate to 24%.
"By our calculations, with the economic analysis tool that we used this dairy should have earned an extra $39,000 per year with that much improvement," says Cordoba.
This analysis effort offered some surprising results to Breunig too. For instance, it was beneficial for him to take advantage of an opportunity to market some heifers internationally. Also, the dairy learned that it would not gain a significant financial benefit from pushing its pregnancy rate much higher.
"I'd always assumed that if your pregnancy rate is 25% and you get to 30 %, that's great, and if you go from 30% to 32%, that's even better," says Breunig. "But we found out that the per-cow income is so small for us that to go from 25 percent to 30% didn't make economic sense. It was kind of shocking to me."
The program is free of charge to Wisconsin dairy producers; Repro Money is poised to expand to additional states in the near future. Other states and universities may have similar programs. Check with your local Extension office or management team to find out what's available in your area.
To learn more about the Repro Money program, or to register online, visit: http://fyi.uwex.edu/repromoney/
Cordoba is an outreach specialist with the University of Wisconsin-Madison dairy science department.