Managing increased cow numbers with the same level of staff can put constraints on herd fertility rates, but a multi-pronged approach at Potstown Farm, Lockerbie, has seen a 10% increase in pregnancy rate.

The Owen family manages Potstown Farm which is home to an all-year-round calving herd of pedigree Holsteins and Jersey cows. The family started dairying with just 90 Holsteins and 177 acres in 1988 and has gradually increased farm and herd over the years.

Today, the Owens farm has more than 350 acres and has recently invested in a new cubicle shed as well as two additional robots.

The Scottish Farmer: Gareth introduced Jersey cattle to the herd four years ago (Photograph: David Cheskin)Gareth introduced Jersey cattle to the herd four years ago (Photograph: David Cheskin)

Four years ago, they decided to change half the herd to Jerseys and today cow numbers stand at 255 with almost 340 followers.

The average annual yield is around 9000 litres with a recent increase in butterfat of 5.3% compared with 4.09% previously. The team is hopeful butterfat levels can be maintained in the coming months.

Sexed semen is used exclusively on cows and heifers with beef semen used on second or third service.

Bull selection is done on a mainly £PLI basis although milk yield, butterfat percentage, type merit, legs and feet, and fertility are used as well along with teat length and placement for robotic milking.

Gareth Owen uses his AHDB herd genetic report to make breeding decisions and is always keen to maintain the herd’s position within the top 5% percentile on the national average report.

Doreen Anderson, AHDB’s senior dairy knowledge exchange manager, said: “The fertility-for-life cycle for an individual cow includes calf and heifer rearing, first mating, pregnancy, calving, then subsequent cycles of mating, pregnancy and calving as a member of the milking herd, and eventually culling.

The Scottish Farmer: Gareth runs a mix of Holstein and Jersey cows made up of 255 cows with almost 340 followers at Potstown (Photograph: David Cheskin)Gareth runs a mix of Holstein and Jersey cows made up of 255 cows with almost 340 followers at Potstown (Photograph: David Cheskin)

Attention throughout the whole cycle pays dividends – especially if it can be done for every animal.

“At each stage of a cow’s life, a good management plan provides answers to an important question: today, have I done all I can to ensure high reproductive performance?”

She added that fertility is influenced by many factors including monitoring herd performance, identifying areas of improvement and how considering selection options can help build a framework to improve conception rates in a herd.

“A fertile herd is more profitable, has better lifetime performance, and is healthier.

"It is more productive, calves more easily and when you want it to calve, as well as offering more opportunity to sell surplus animals or increase herd size.

“Improving fertility provides the flexibility to better manage a dairy farm and herd.

"Better fertility performance allows individuals to maximise the efficiency of each individual cow in a system to produce milk.”

When Potstown joined the AHDB programme in 2021, the herd pregnancy rate was 17.7%.

After focusing on improving fertility to hit a target of 25%, they achieved a 27.9% result by changing protocols, looking at the ratio, and spending more time with better attention to detail.

As a part of the programme, a steering group consisting of their vet and other local farmers offered support through considering new ideas, discussing goals, and reviewing the progress made.

Callum from Ark Vets has been instrumental in making a number of changes to improve herd fertility.

Gareth said: “Working alongside our vet and revisiting our protocols, we carried out routine fertility visits and routine post-partum checks, synchronising cows not seen after a set period, helping us to maximise submission rates (SR) on farm.”

He added: “The additional improvements we have made include genomic testing, maximising ventilation in the sheds, improved mobility scores with proactive hoof care, alongside what we were already doing to improve fertility.”

Metabolic profiling has helped Potstown fine-tune feeding practices and build a greater understanding of how the herd can produce the milk quality, yield and margins they wish to achieve.

Callum added: “One of the key factors that can affect conception rate is nutrition.

“Back in 2021, we were seeing poor colostrum levels in the calves and wanted to explore if the nutrition was affecting fertility, so we worked with Potstown and Alastair Macrae at the Dairy Herd Health and Productivity Service (DHHPS) at Edinburgh University to carry out a metabolic profile.

“The results identified negative energy balance in the dry and early lactation cows, further leading to poor ovarian function for up to 100 days post-challenge.

"Potstown now carry out quarterly metabolic profiles, helping them to maximise feed efficiency, positively impacting conception rate”.

Looking at the results, Alastair got a good understanding of where the farm needs to focus attention to ensure they can get the most out of the herd.

Alistair said: “Fresh calvers are short of energy, but the issue is not a lack of energy in their diet.

Nor is it starting with the dry cows.

So the problem must be with freshly calved cow intakes or digestion.”

Over the last two years, Potstown has reduced its calving interval from 395 to 373 days, increased conception rates to first service from 23% to 38%, and improved average submission rates (SR) from 75.2% to 75.9%.

More importantly, the average pregnancy rate is now 27.9%, far exceeding the 25% target.

Furthermore, the Potstown team is looking to continue improving fertility rates.

In their final year of the programme, they are focusing on how to increase home-grown forage yields and the improvements within their herds through better use of genomic testing results.