A Holistic Approach to Blood-Based Pregnancy Testing
While different statistics equate to success, one standard measurement most dairies look at is the number of confirmed pregnancies in their herd. While preg checks often coincide with herd health days, more and more dairies have turned to blood-based pregnancy tests, which has several positive benefits. Full Circle Jerseys in Dalhart, Texas, and Rib-Arrow Dairy in Tulare, Calif., share their journey with blood-based pregnancy testing.
Full Circle Jerseys
Brandon Beavers, the general manager of Full Circle Jerseys, home to 5,000 mature cows, says when he joined the operation in 2016, they still had a vet coming to the dairy weekly to ultrasound cows.
“It worked pretty good, except we had a Ph.D. veterinarian doing something we could pay a guy a lot less money to do,” he says.
A few years later, Full Circle purchased their own ultrasound and trained their VISA-program employees, who have animal science or veterinarian degrees, to run the ultrasound.
Beavers says that worked well for them, but labor turnover a few years ago challenged them with ongoing employee training. Full Circle explored pregnancy testing options and liked that blood-based pregnancy testing can be done earlier compared to ultrasound.
“That is really what piqued my interest,” Beavers says. “The more I explored it, I thought it would work for us.”
Already set up with an in-house lab, Full Circle has been doing milk culturing for years and has experienced labor to run the equipment. According to Beavers, it’s not difficult work but the key is finding someone meticulous enough to run the blood work.
The second benefit that sold Beavers and his team on blood testing was the ability to confirm pregnancies at 28 days. There is room for human error with an ultrasound, he says, but blood testing eliminates that.
Beavers strives for a 35% pregnancy rate, but after two years of using blood tests, Full Circle’s pregnancy rate is north of 40%. He says finding open cows sooner is the key.
Additionally, Full Circle has a well-established beef-on-dairy program and uses sexed semen alongside timed artificial insemination (AI).
“We’re getting more pregnant cows even off sexed semen and finding the ones that aren’t pregnant sooner,” he says.
If a dairy has the size and scale to run an in-house lab, conducting blood testing is a worthwhile investment, Beavers says.
“If your management style is to be the cheapest producer, blood testing might not work for you,” he adds. “It’s probably not the least cost program but I think the return on the investment is solid.”
Tyler Ribeiro, owner of Rib-Arrow Dairy, says like most dairies, they began with palpation, moved to ultrasound and then began using blood-sample pregnancy technology through a mini-trial with IDEXX last spring.
“We did it side by side with the veterinarian and the ultrasound to see how they would do as far as speed and accuracy,” Ribeiro says. “Of course, when you adopt new technology, you run into hurdles and bumps and that first day was not very smooth, but it was an accurate day.”
Milking 1,500 Holsteins, Ribeiro says the results were more accurate than his veterinarian was able to previously provide.
“Because the [blood] test doesn’t get tired, and the arms do,” he says.
Making this switch allowed Ribeiro to better position his veterinarian for a role he was designed to be in.
“Instead of being a tech behind the cow, the veterinarian can provide insights and troubleshoot for our dairy,” Ribeiro explains.
Time savings is also a huge benefit for Rib-Arrow Dairy, especially when you factor in the veterinarian at $100 an hour, once a week, plus three additional employees.
“We went 100% to this test because we can use two people throughout the week instead of three people and a veterinarian and take up an entire day” he says.
Ribeiro was aware other benefits would be realized, as he knew they’ve missed a couple animals through ultrasound and misdiagnosed them (either pregnant or open). The cost of blood sampling pays for itself, he says, as the goal is to accurately confirm pregnancies.
“We found just the accuracy alone has paid for it each time,” he says.
With additional technology investments in the works, such as augmented reality glasses and NeDap’s SmartTag collar sensors, Ribeiro is looking to streamline and make small revisions.
Ribeiro says he has learned that starting pregnancy checks sooner at 29 days adds a level of stress to the animal, which is especially hard on heifers. This was perhaps causing an increased instance of abortions. Although Ribeiro has not conducted blood sampling this soon to know if it continues to be the case.
Rib-Arrow Dairy is now more hands-off, blood sampling at 31 days, reconfirming around 80 days pregnant and sampling again at dryoff. Ribeiro confidentially says the only person regularly arming cows on his dairy is the breeder.
“Nobody else is wearing a glove,” he says.
Ribeiro likes that the pens are being disturbed less, as they now blood sample by taking a scanner and a handful of tubes and pull a couple of samples daily, rather than blocking off an entire day for pregnancy checks. Looking at his investments, such as blood sampling holistically, Ribeiro says the least invasive you can be with an animal is a point in your favor.
“More cows lying down and less lock up time give us that opportunity,” he says.
Ribeiro believes blood sampling works well on his dairy, but other factors must be in place.
“We’ve got a fantastic crew, including a fantastic breeder,” he says. “If everything wasn’t going right, these cows wouldn’t get pregnant.”
Ribeiro advises other producers interested in switching to blood sampling to talk to their team first.
“Make sure they are willing, capable and able to pull the samples,” he says. “Also talk to your veterinarian, letting them know what you’re planning on doing.”
5 Benefits of Sample-Based Pregnancy Testing
Greg Goodell, a veterinarian and owner of The Dairy Authority LLC, based in Greeley, Colo., says compared with rectal palpation, sample-based assays are preferable in terms of:
Timeliness. Ample-based tests using blood can begin 60 days after calving and be performed as early as 26 to 28 days after the last heat. This timely information allows you to efficiently address open animals.
Accuracy. The major sample-based tests on the market have extremely accurate results of 98% to 99% sensitivity and 95% specificity. Even veterinarians who palpate hundreds of cows per week typically have accuracy rates that roughly match those results. For less-experienced practitioners or those who are tired from long days of palpating, results can be less precise than the tests.
Efficiencies and labor savings. Dairies who use these tests tend to operate like well-oiled machines. A capable team of three individuals can easily manage gathering samples: one-person wanding cows and the other two drawing blood and marking and storing the samples.
Interfacing with other breeding protocols and tools. There is excellent synergy between timed artificial insemination (AI) programs, rumen- and activity-based heat detection programs, and sample-based pregnancy testing. Depending on labor, scheduling sample collection can be adjusted a few days on the front side of restarting a timed AI protocol, providing flexibility on the dairy.
Veterinary expertise. Simply stated, there are many other valuable services and advice veterinarians can offer to help shape the overall success of your dairy. Plus, selfishly, palpating is physical work that takes a toll on the body.
February 7, 2023