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WIN-What’s Important Now? Preparing for Breeding 2019

09 April 2019
Type Media Article

By Martin Mulkerrins, Dairy Advisor on the Teagasc/Aurivo Joint Programme, Teagasc Galway/Clare

With the breeding season kicking off in the next few weeks, irrespective of different production systems, a breeding plan should be in place for cows and heifers. It is worth considering;

  1. What are your goals for this year’s breeding season?
  2. What can you do to give yourself the best chance of achieving these goals?

These are personal questions for each farmer to decide for themselves but this article aims to highlight a number of topics of interest to help answer those questions.

Breeding Start Date

It is important to decide on an appropriate date to start breeding for your farm which targets calving to grass next spring. Research from Teagasc Ballyhaise has found no difference in annual milk or milk solids production from cows that started calving on February 1st compared to those that started on February 15th even though both groups were dried off at the same time each year. There are many farms in the region that have delayed their breeding start date and start calving from the 10th-15th of February. However, having a high 6 week calving rate (over 80%) and a strict breeding end date are even more crucial in this scenario to avoid May and June calving cows which are less profitable.

Heat Detection

Can you afford 1 hour and 20 minutes per day (4x20 minutes) during the breeding season to observe cows on heat? If not, you must use heat detection aids. There are a number of heat detection aids available including tail paint, scratch cards and vasectomised bulls but to name a few. The aim is to have 90% of the herd served in the first 3 weeks and 100% in the first 6 weeks of the breeding season; if she hasn’t been served she can’t be in calf! Coupled with a conception rate of 60% this will result in over 80% of the herd in calf within 6 weeks. With every missed heat resulting in a loss of up to €250, the key message is to use some form of heat detection to minimise missed heats.

Body Condition

Body Condition Scoring (BCS) is measured on a scale of 1 to 5 with 1 being extremely thin and 5 being extremely fat. The target BCS at breeding is 2.75-3.25. Under conditioned cows will have much lower submission rates and are less likely to go back in calf. In general cows are in good condition at the moment but there is variation both between and within herds. Most farmers have thin cows on once-a-day milking and receiving the same level of meal as the cows on twice a day milking to help build condition before the start of breeding.


Many farmers are planning on synchronising heifers for a number of reasons including; practicality if they are on out-farms, to have compact calving and to calve their heifers a week before the cows. This is because the second lactation calving date for heifers tends to slip by a week from their first lactation calving date. Some farmers also prefer to calve heifers ahead of the cows to allow them to adjust to the milking parlour although other farmers prefer to have some cows calved “to help train them in”. The research on heifer weights is clear; serving heifers at 60% of their mature body weight is the optimal weight for survivability in the herd. For example, a herd with mature cows weighing 550kg will have a target weight for heifers of 330kg at 15 months of age for breeding.

Other Points to Consider

  • Non-cycling cows and cows that had any complications during or after calving should be checked as early as possible to give them the best chance of going back in-calf.
  • ICBF sire advice can be used to select the bulls you want to use for this year’s breeding season from the active bull list and match them to the most suitable cows in your herd.
  • A growing number of farmers in the region are selecting the cows they want to breed replacements from using calving date, EBI and milk recording etc. The cows not selected for breeding replacements from are bred to beef sires from the start of the breeding season.
  • There is now a Dairy Beef Index (DBI) available to farmers. The DBI is a breeding goal for Irish dairy and beef farmers to promote high quality beef cattle bred from the dairy herd that are more saleable as calves and profitable at slaughter yet, they have minimal consequences on the calving difficulty or gestation length of the dairy cow.


There is a big variation between farms in terms of the percentage of ground grazed. Many farmers took advantage of the favourable conditions in February and have started the second rotation or will do so in the coming days. There should be at least 1200kg DM/ha on the first 3 paddocks before starting the second rotation. Depending on growth rates, target a cover of 180kg dry matter per livestock unit. Regardless of the percentage grazed, walking your farm now (and if possible measuring it) will give you the confidence to make important decisions sooner.