In 1996, DHIA data showed test-day herds averaged 18,911 lb. of milk in a year, with 3.72% butterfat and 3.23% protein. In 2014, test-day herds grew to 23,798 lb., with 3.76% fat and 3.13% protein.
In January, Holstein Association USA confirmed the breed hit a new milestone with Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi, who produced 74,650 lb. of milk. Gigi achieved this as a nineyear- old, after a 61,000 lb. record the lactation before.
Will we ever have herds full of Gigis, or even half a Gigi, at 30,000 lb., with a 30% or higher average pregnancy rate?
Enter the 30/30 club. Already, there are a smattering of herds that make 30,000 lb. of milk with a pregnancy rate more than 30%.
King Smith, western manager for technical service for Select Sires, profiled some of the herds on their way to being 30/30 for the state of Minnesota at the December Minnesota Milk Conference and Expo.
Smith says he often tells customers what they could change to achieve a higher pregnancy rate, but these suggestions are quickly met with opposition at some high-producing herds.
"My cows make too much milk," Smith says farmers tell him. "I'll never be able to meet those high, lofty pregnancy rates that everybody talks about."
Smith begs to differ and thinks while it is very hard, it is attainable. The Select Sires database of customers shows a 22% pregnancy rate median, far higher than the 20% we were striving for not too long ago.
The 2015 Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council (DCRC) Reproduction Award platinum winners achieved pregnancy rates of 32% to 39%. Almost all pointed to two factors: a team approach and attention to detail.
While teams and details are different at every farm, Smith drilled down in herd data to see what the 30/30 herds, or those on the track to become one, were doing.
Of the Minnesota DHIA herds in the Dairy Records Management System (DRMS), 1,120 of them were Holsteins‚Äîrepresenting 32% of the state's producers‚Äîaveraging 23,340 lb. per year with a 17.65% median pregnancy rate.
But Minnesota's top 10% of herds in DRMS reach an amazing 26% pregnancy, and the top 10 reach even higher.
What were the characteristics of these top 10 herds? Smith notes these top 10 herds are actually on the larger size of farms, not small herds making outlier years with a few cows. Larger herds tend to cull quickly, but he once noticed a disclaimer in a paper by the University of Wisconsin's Paul Fricke that a 34% pregnancy rate herd has just 23% first-lactation animals.
"I think that's one of the criterion we need to watch for when achieving these high numbers," Smith says. "We can't be carrying too many first lactation animals. I have herds in the western U.S. that are really good at culling animals, using sexed semen. But when you cull, cull, cull and get higher than 45% first-lactation animals, the rolling herd average takes a hit."
Also, days in milk were quite low among the top herds, with an average of 159 days.
"It looks like if we can stay south of 180 days in milk, we can have opportunity to reach some of these animals," Smith says.
Average age at calving was 23 months, with a range of 22 to 24 months, while culling rate was 25% to 45%, with an average of 38%.
"They didn't get here by culling all their cows to get to the high levels," Smith says.
But, in showing the first 40-day milk weights, Smith says there was a stark difference between these herds and industry averages. "We have to start these animals off well," he says. "These herds averaged first 40-day weights in first lactation of 68.5 lb., second lactation at 100 lb., and third lactation at 103 lb."
When it comes to reproduction, Smith notes these herds are not getting more cows pregnant by breeding earlier. "These herds, along with those winning the national DCRC Reproduction Awards, have moved their days in milk at first service to around 70 days," Smith explains. "You won't find many cows bred here at 50 days."
On the other side, a small percentage‚Äî close to 1%‚Äîof cows will be inseminated for the first time at or after 100 days in milk.
But, at the base of pregnancy rate is still a very successful conception rate. "We still need that basic statistic to make the pregnancy rate equation," Smith says.
Based on the data he shared, Smith concludes reproduction and production are not opposites. "I think we can have it all," he adds.
Note: This story appeared in theApril issue of Dairy Herd Management