Repeat Breeding Syndrome

Reduced fertility is one of the commonest reasons for vets being called onto dairy farms. In many cases cows presented to vets have obvious problems such as “whites” or ovarian cysts. However, not every cow failing to hold to service has an obvious problem. A significant number (around 10 to 15%) of cows require four or more inseminations to get pregnant despite apparently cycling normally. Most of these are indeed “normal” since, assuming no cows are culled after earlier services, then even in a herd with every cow becoming pregnant at a rate of 50% (a good rate for our dairy farms these days) there will be 12.5% of cows presented for a 4th service!

However, in some cases there is an underlying problem reducing the chance of the cow getting pregnant. These may be either cow factors that require ultrasound examination or even other more sophisticated tests e.g. oviduct patency, or the result of a wide range of external factors, such as poor management. An obvious example is inefficient oestrous detection. On farm, without extensive testing, it is very difficult to distinguish between all these factors, as their only sign is a cow that is apparently normal but hasn’t got pregnant. Such cows get lumped together as having ‘repeat breeding syndrome’.

Recognising a repeat breeder cow

To identify repeat breeder cows you need two things: good records and good heat detection. Given what has been said above and that on many farms the efficiency of oestrous detection is less than 60% (i.e. for every 10 cows potentially cycling only 6 are served) it can be seen that this is quite a need! However if done well they allow the farmer or herdsperson to pick up cows that are cycling normally but not getting pregnant or most importantly those not fitting a normal pattern. Using this information these possible problem animals can be identified quickly, subjected to veterinary examination and a treatment protocol applied. This reduces the potential days open and so saves money. The exact amount depends on farm circumstances but it more than pays for a regular veterinary visit on most farms.

Good records have two values. First and foremost they need to be referred to easily and quickly. A notebook or breeding calendar is often better than a computer as a means of reference or “action list”, as it is usually nearer to the cows. The second use is to exploit these records to review the herd performance at least annually. Often the notebook is less useful and even calendars etc., do not lend themselves to this. It is here that the computer is king. A simple spreadsheet can do a lot! Most farms have a computer even if it is the children that use it!

Good heat detection needs an ability to recognise the signs of heat and time set aside to look carefully for these as in some cases they may not be very obvious. The 3-week calendar can be very useful in pinpointing likely candidates. Other aids, such as beacons, tail paint pedometers and milk progesterones can also improve heat detection but there is still no really cost effective substitute for the astute observer apart from the bull. Even the latter can be overwhelmed if there are too many cows in season at one time.

Treating repeat breeder cows

If regular veterinary fertility visits are not used then cows that have had three services and are not pregnant should be checked before serving again. Many studies have shown that the treatment of repeat breeder cows, even those that are apparently normal, does save money. They also show that it is those farms with good records and good breeding plans that save the most as they use the veterinary input most efficiently. The management and treatment of repeat breeders should form a significant part of the fertility section of your herd health plan.

Preventing repeat breeder cows

  1. Ensure you are serving cows at the correct time. This means that all staff should know the signs of heat. Milk progesterone testing is also useful; cows in a true heat will have very low progesterone.
  2. Ensure insemination techniques are as good as possible. This is particularly important if you use DIY AI. Do not serve cows previously diagnosed as pregnant without doing a cow-side progesterone test to confirm it is has a low progesterone and is not pregnant. If the cow is pregnant AI may cause foetal loss.
  3. Identify and treat cows with whites before starting to serve them.
  4. Don’t start serving too soon after calving. Herds that start early have lower pregnancy rates to service and so more repeat breeder cows.
  5. Minimise stress at service. For example, try and avoid serving around turnout or when you change the diet.

A comprehensive analysis and review of your breeding programme is time well spent in the battle to reduce repeat breeding. Get together with your vet and go through your herd records and present breeding protocols and see if there are not some areas where this important area could be improved.


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