A while ago, FarmKenya Initiative organised a Dairy Expo in Meru where farmers had an opportunity to learn more about dairy farming. Majority of the farmers complained that their cows had been served severally without conceiving.
This condition is called repeat breeding. A repeat breeder is a cow that is cycling normally, but has failed to conceive after at least two successive inseminations.
Cause and symptoms
In practice, some will have been inseminated at the wrong time, others may have undiagnosed uterine infections.
An early repeater is an animal will come into heat within 17-24 days after Artificial Insemination (AI) while a late repeater is a cow that comes into heat later than 25 days after AI.
In these animals, fertilisation and initial recognition of pregnancy probably took place but for some reason such as inadequate embryo signalling or infectious diseases, the pregnancy was lost. Good heat detection and records are key to identifying these cows.
Repeat breeders should be carefully evaluated to define the most probable reason for the failure to conceive (early repeats) or failure in pregnancy maintenance (early and late repeats). Initially heat records should be evaluated to classify the cow as early or late repeat. Cows that have had three services and are not pregnant should be checked before serving again by a veterinarian.
Ensure you are serving cows at the correct time. Knowing when to serve your cows is a game changer for farmers as it makes all the difference. This means that all staff should know the signs of heat.
There are several behavioural signs of estrus, also called standing heat. The average heat duration is between 15 and 18 hours but may vary from eight to 30 hours. The signs are the same, but generally more pronounced in heifers than in cows.
During calving season, look for these signs to identify when members of your herd will enter estrus:
Standing to be mounted. The most common and accurate sign of estrus is standing to be mounted by other. Cows that move away from an attempted mount are not in estrus.
Mounting other cows. The act of mounting other cows may be a sign the cow is on heat or approaching it. Although it’s not a primary sign of heat, you should watch cows exhibiting this behaviour closely for standing behaviour.
Mucus discharge. Mucus is an indirect result of elevated estrogen levels during estrus. You may observe long viscous, clear elastic strands of mucus hanging from the vulva or smeared mucus on the cow’s tail, thighs, flanks or perineal region.
Swelling and reddening of the vulva. During heat, the vulva swells and becomes moist and red on the interior.
Bellowing, restlessness and trailing. Cows on heat are more restless and alert, standing when their herd mates are laying down resting, trailing behind to try to mount other cows and bellowing more frequently. Cows behaving this way should be monitored closely for standing behaviour.
Rubbed tail head hair and dirty flanks. When cows have been ridden the hair on their tailed and rump will be fluffed-up, rubbed or matted, and their skin may be exposed. Additionally, their legs and flanks may be smeared with mud or manure.
Chin resting and back rubbing. Before mounting, a cow will rest or rub its chin on the rump or back of the cow it wants to mount. If you observe this behaviour, both cows should be monitored for mounting and standing behaviour.
Sniffing and licking. Sniffing and licking the genitalia of other cows occurs much more frequently with cows before and during estrus.
Head raising and lip curling. This activity follows sniffing and occurs more frequently when the cow being sniffed is in heat and urinates.
Decreased feed intake. During their reproductive cycle, cows spend less time feeding.
Milk progesterone testing is also useful; cows in a true heat will have very low progesterone.
Ensure insemination techniques are as good as possible. This is particularly important if you use do it yourself AI. Do not serve cows previously diagnosed as pregnant without doing a cow-side progesterone test to confirm it has a low progesterone and is not pregnant. If the cow is pregnant, AI may cause foetal loss.
Identify and treat cows before starting to serve them.
Don’t start serving too soon after calving. Herds that start early have lower pregnancy rates to service and so more repeat breeder cows.
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 where this important area could be improved.