The Moos Room™

Brad and Joe's long-awaited cage match about pregnancy diagnosis methods is here! Brad and Joe discuss blood, milk, and ultrasound pregnancy testing methods, and where the industry is heading.

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Hosted by members of the University of Minnesota Extension Beef and Dairy Teams, The Moos Room discusses relevant topics to help beef and dairy producers be more successful. The information is evidence-based and presented as an informal conversation between the hosts and guests.

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Joe: Welcome to the Moos Room, everybody. It's just Brad and Joe today. We are continuing a conversation that we've had separately so far on milk and blood testing for pregnancy that Brad released an episode two weeks ago, I gave one last week, and then this week we're talking together. I think at least initially, we thought we might argue more about this topic, but it turns out I think we're a lot closer together on what we see happening in the industry and where things should go moving forward than we thought. I'm sure that we'll still argue today, but we'll get into that soon. How are you doing today, Brad?
Brad: Oh, doing well today. It's always fun. The sun is shining and we're almost to grass, getting close to pasture time, so anticipation is getting closer, so that's always a good feeling to have when the snow is left and spring is coming.
Joe: Can't argue with that. It seems like this year it's coming on fast and happening all of a sudden and sneaking up on us a little bit. It does seem like with the snow being around that long that maybe we're behind in getting ready a little bit.
Brad: I don't know. I thought about it today. I looked at the pastures and I'm not sure that we're too far behind. If the sun comes out, the grass is getting green. I don't know if we'll be maybe a week or two weeks behind normal for grazing start, so I don't think it's too far off.
Joe: That's good. That's good to hear, all the water helps.
Brad: Exactly, exactly. I'm getting excited. It's always nice and I think the cows are too.
Joe: If you didn't listen to the last few episodes, basically we've been talking about blood and milk pregnancy testing, and there's options for that on-farm, which Brad talked about in his episode. Those tests are through IDEXX, sound like great tools and Brad proved to himself at least that he could use them effectively and they match with what we send off as well, which is good, and then if you listen to my episode, we talked about how I'm in favor of these tools and I want them to continue and I want them to be used some more. Any added tool in a farmer's toolbox is great to me.
I discussed some of the benefits of ultrasounding, which there are benefits to ultrasounding in terms of how much more information you can get, and maybe we'll see that we'll get more information out of these tests in the future. For right now, if you want information, ultrasound is, in my opinion, the way to go. If you're looking for a yes-no and that's all you care about, then get it done however you can.
That's a recap of the last few episodes. We'll start there. Brad, one of my questions for you on how the testing went is like, how complicated was it? Especially, I could see the single test being fairly easy to run, but how hard was it to keep everything straight and run through the process of the multiple tests?
Brad: Well, you talked about the single test, that's easy. A few drops of blood, add the solution, wait 15, 20 minutes, I think, and you got your results. If you want to know, I think they'll actually work pretty good if it's like, "Oh, well, this cow come back into heat. We weren't sure," You can run some tests quickly without having to have a vet on-site or all of that. I think the single test, it provides a different avenue depending on what you're doing.
The multiple tests, it takes time and organization. When I first started it, I did 20 because I wasn't sure how long it took. You have to run four different solutions, wash them. It takes a little bit more activity and patience to do all of that, especially having some equipment to wash the samples and the vials with distilled water. I did 20 at first and then I got confident that I could do it. Well, then I did the last 60 [laughs] that it was a lot of work to make sure that you-- it was like the right blood from the right cow went into the right well. It takes time. I don't think I will ever do 60 again at the same time unless there was more people helping.
It takes time and it can be complicated if you don't get the blood into the right vial, you have to have a control and do some things. It's not something that you can just do quickly and get a yes-no. It takes some time and some effort to do that. If you're doing a lot of cows or lots of heifers like we did, it works out, but I did 87 heifers and it took me a little over two hours, so it's time.
Joe: That's time but at your own convenience. You can decide when it's going to happen. You're not checking on someone else's schedule, which vets can be notorious for having a tight schedule, and getting ahold of them can be tough. If you need it done and you want to decide when it gets done, I can't argue with that part of it.
Brad: I agree.
Joe: 87 heifers in two hours, I would hope that I can definitely get through 87 heifers in two hours.
Brad: 87 heifers?
Joe: Absolutely, with an ultrasound, I should be able to do that, no problem. Again, that then it comes back to getting the schedule straight and everything. We talk about how hard it is to keep everything organized and where things go and all of that. That's a challenge regardless of what tests you run. How organized are you with your paperwork and are you looking at the right cow? Did you read the ear tag correctly? Do you then write it on the right spot on your sheet? Or if you're using RFID technology, is it ringing up correctly, or is your tech working right? There's so many challenges to keeping that part straight.
I think about the same thing with DHI testing and culturing milk, any of that kind of stuff, keeping all of it straight from a record standpoint, the test can be super accurate, but if you can't keep all of that organized, doesn't really matter. It doesn't matter which test you run, it's an issue.
Brad: I agree. If you don't have it organized before you start taking blood samples or milk samples, it will spiral out of control really fast and you cannot be one vial off or it will make everybody-- you'll have open cows that are pregnant and pregnant cows that are open and you can make a mess of it really fast if you're not detail oriented and trying to figure that out. It's not for the faint of heart, I would say, to just go into it. It takes some time and that's why I started small, but I really like the single tests. No doubt about it. If you have a smaller herd, the single test are wonderful. If you're just looking for a yes-no, whether she's pregnant or not.
Joe: Again, we talked about the additional information you can get from an ultrasound where that's calf viability, sex of the fetus, is the breeding date right, all of those things. For some people, those things are very important and they want to know for you in a organic system, needing to know what's on the ovary is less important because you're not sinking cows and using shots to do so. How important are some of those things to you when you look at it from a dairy management side?
Brad: That's the one thing, like you said last week, it's not going to give you structures on the ovaries or anything like that. For me, it's important to know that, especially if the cows aren't cycling, you're not going to pick up cystic cows with these tests. If you have some cystic cows, I think from a management perspective it is important to know what those structures are, especially if you're syncing cows, because otherwise, you're just giving shots to cows that don't need that whatever you're giving them, it's not going to work.
I think that's one downfall of these pregnancy tests is if you have an open cow, you don't know where she is in her heat cycle at all. You could potentially be giving a shot to a cow that doesn't need PGF or GnRH or maybe it needs a CIDR and you don't know those aspects. That is one of the downfalls of these tests is you're not able to pick out those structures, which I think is important. I think it's important.
Joe: At least what I saw in practice was that calf viability. You find calves that are there but have no heartbeat. You find calves that the fluid looks off and you call them a recheck and you come back the next week and there's no heartbeat the next week. With sexed semen, maybe calf sex isn't as important. We don't talk about it enough. There's still 10% on average of sex semen is still going to come up bull. Knowing those kinds of things is nice.
One that I probably see the most often, more often than calf viability issues or wanting to know the sex is the breed date being wrong. The amount of times that I have someone tell me, "Brad, on this date, you go in there, you're expecting a 30-day calf and you've got a 60-day calf in there and you know that you need to go to the previous breed date because that one's right." That's a big deal when we look at when are we drying off, when are we going to move? That one bugs me the most that we don't catch breed dates that are incorrect.
Brad: I agree. At one point I used to love to sex the embryos inside the cow, and after a while, it was like I don't know what it really does from a management perspective for me, maybe it was like, "Oh, well okay, maybe I'll keep this cow because she's got a heifer calf in her and I probably should call her and I probably should have called her anyways." There's those aspects that come into it.
Right now, frankly, I don't really care what the sex is anymore because I'm using a lot of sexed semen in beef. Usually the sexed semen, we,95% of the time or 90% of the time we're getting a heifer calf and beef semen, it doesn't really matter. I guess I shouldn't say that because it does matter because the difference between a bull and a heifer and a dairy beef cross, but now we have, it's male-sorted sperm that you can breed to get just bull calves. I think at some point the sexing of embryos won't really matter. I know some people are interested in that, and I used to be. I'm not anymore.
Joe: I feel the same way. When I was working with my dairies and with my beef clients too, sexing the fetus really came down to, "It's nice to know." I care about calf viability, the breed dates, what's going on there, healthy calf, and if you're down there anyway and it takes you an extra two seconds and you happen to see it, I'll let you know, but I'm not going to spend a lot of extra time doing it because I don't see the value.
It really comes down to, like you were talking about a culling decision. If you've got two cows and one needs to go, you keep the one with the heifer depending on what you bred her with, or the one with the bull, depending on what you bred her with. It's just really nice to know, but it doesn't change a whole lot of decisions. Just like I said, I worry mostly about the breed date being right because that changes dry-off dates, that changes a lot of different things when they move and where they go and how well they're going to do next lactation. If you're off by 30 days, that's a pretty big deal. If you're off by 60 days, that's a really big deal. I like being able to confirm when she's bred to make sure that it's right.
Brad: You also like to tell about twins. At one point, I used to be concerned about twins and wanted to know that, but now, [chuckles] I probably don't care about the twins as much as what I used to. I think our dairy runs about 8% twins. We just know that's going to happen, and it's tough with ultrasound. Sometimes you can pick up the twins. Definitely, we have had the vet in the past go, "There's twins in here," and then the next time maybe there's one of the calves laying on top of the other and the ultrasound doesn't pick it up.
I think for us in our dairy, it's been maybe 50% accuracy trying to pick the twins or not. It's nice to know if they're going to have twins, but I'm not sure that it's as important anymore. Now, we don't have a lot of calving problems here so twins for us isn't as detrimental, potentially detrimental yet we still have issues with twins. There's always stillborn twins or you name it, and the cow has problems when they have twins. It's nice, but I don't get concerned about the twining aspect anymore. Not a lot. Not like I used to. I used to be all uptight about twins and sexing of embryos, but maybe as I've gotten older, I've just want to know whether they're pregnant or not.
Joe: I think the twins thing, again, it's nice to know. It helps in certain situations if you've got a bull and a heifer in there, you know that heifer is going to be a free-martin, and then you don't waste time with her, raising her as a replacement when you otherwise could just kick her to the beef side right away. That those are the kind of things that I like to know, but again, it's added information that's nice to know. It's not absolutely necessary for management decisions. Again, we're back to is the breed date right? Is the calf viable and what's happening on the ovaries?
If those things are important to you, maybe you use ultrasound, but what I see the value of these tools is probably a combination of the two, in my opinion. I think that especially with dry-off checks or if you're a small herd, the value of just double checking they're still pregnant as they go to dry-off, it's huge to use milk or blood. It's really fast to do it with a vet, but it's not always convenient. I think using a combination of the two would be cool.
I know one dairy that I worked with, they used testing for pregnancy diagnosis up front. I came in at 60 days, confirmed the predate was right, got a fetal sex, checked for twins, and then they had the opportunity for more information there, and then they rechecked with the test to dry-off. Again, it's a combination of the two, and I think there might be some, like Brad was talking about, the getting schedules figured out, logistics figured out with everything else that's going on the farm. It might be easier to do a combination of the two if you want that extra information.
Brad: One thing that, and we could argue about this topic, but one reason that we moved towards blood and milk was economics, purely economics. For us and our herd, might not be for other herds, it was much cheaper to do, especially at dry off. Why have the vet, pay the vet a lot of money just to come in and do a bunch of preg checks at dry-off? We run those through a milk sample. I don't know what they are now, $4 or $5, and we get that information.
In my mind, I don't need to waste the vet's time just coming out to see if there's a bunch of dry cows that are open, which we don't have very often. For us, the milk makes more sense at dry off and we could figure out the economics. I'm not sure yet whether it would pay to do all the blood samples versus have the vet ultrasound. I think for our management situation and how we run things, I think it's cheaper for us to do the blood samples, but we do a combination. Most of the time there's blood, but we do have the vet come out once during our breeding season and just check cows.
It's really just the open cows. What are the structures on the ovaries, is the cow cystic? I think there is value in having the veterinarian come out once, especially for us when our breeding window is quite tight, we can assess those cows and figure out what's going on for our herd, but the rest of the time I think it's blood or milk and that's where we're moving.
Joe: I see that, and I talked about it on my episode too, the value of the veterinarian being there for herd check. It's valuable to get all this information for pregnancy diagnosis, but it's the stuff you talk about during herd check, it's the questions get that get asked, it's the stuff you look at afterwards, whether that's sick cows, whether that's calf issues or nutrition problems, that's the value of herd check. It's not the pregnancy diagnosis because now we have options that don't include a veterinarian that are competitive on the economic side. The value is them being there and talking about all these other things and being available.
In the future, I hope that we're finding ways to get on farm that don't include pregnancy checking. That's the idea for me with a veterinarian, it's going to become harder and harder to convince farmers that the veterinarian should come if there wasn't already a reason for them to be there, but I think you probably have seen it, Brad. If a vet comes out for a sick cow, how often do you start talking about other stuff, walk over and look at something else?
It snowballs into all these other things that come up and it happens quite often and maybe there should be a regular visit, maybe even different payment model, economic model for how that works, but there's got to be a way for veterinarians to get on farm because they're still valuable in my opinion. It's just not going to be in the future, in my opinion, as a pregnancy diagnostic tool.
Brad: I agree. I think there's value in the veterinarians for lots of things, health protocols, vaccines, health issues, nutrition, you name it, but you do not see consistent pregnancy checking in the veterinary model anymore. Not with a lot of these different diagnostics. I've been to some DHI meetings and there's large herds that milk and blood checking. These are 3000 plus cows that they're doing only milk and blood. They don't have the veterinarian do the preg-checking anymore.
I think those models are going to continue and we're going to see even more herds and especially if you have a smaller herd, these single tests, that's probably the future for some small herds too. Why, for a small herd, a veterinary visit all the time can be very expensive. If you have them come out for other things and discuss herd health, then many of those aspects, it's valuable but to just come out and preg check might not be the best option in the future, in my mind.
Joe: Yes, I can't argue with that very much but I'm glad you see some value in the veterinarian, Brad. That's good to hear. It's good to hear you admit it.
Brad: I know, man, I had a hard time saying that, but sure. Yes, I [unintelligible 00:20:37] [chuckles].
Joe: There you go. That's good. Maybe we will run the economics at some point to just look at, "Okay, what does it look like for a standard preg check for this many cows in a good setup? Whether that's headlocks or one at a time because it's definitely different. A rail is different and then the differences in labor, we got to account for the time it takes to get set up for both tasks because getting ready for herd check doesn't start when the veterinarian gets there.
That happens way before. Whether that's set in headlocks or identifying cows or sorting or however it works, there's a lot that goes into getting ready for herd check. Probably a lot that goes into sorting cows for pregnancy testing if we're doing blood but there's a lot of factors there that maybe Brad and I can work through, maybe we'll come up with an economic comparison just to see where it lands.
I think there's a lot of opportunities here to combine the two. I think there's a lot of opportunities to think about your relationship with your veterinarian and what that's going to look like moving forward if pregnancy diagnosis isn't something that you're going to count on them for, obviously with the opens, confirming opens, any of the rechecks that come back on the tests, it's nice to have them there to be able to see what's going on with those and get that more information, but that takes your pool of what they're preg-checking from 100 cows to maybe 10. That saves everyone time and it hopefully saves the farmer money in that process. I can't argue with the way it's moving. It seems to be the direction that it should go.
Brad: I think we're going to see more of it and it's going to happen. There's large herds doing it and I think it'll trickle down to smaller herds too. Even with milk testing. People have been milk testing for quite a few years. We've been milk testing for five-plus years and now we're getting into the blood and it's going fast. It's moving fast and the test will only improve. The test will only improve.
Joe: Before we get out of this episode. We can't get out of an episode with Bradley without talking sensors in some way. Brad, let it drop that he got a chance to speak with a herd that is preg-checking with only activity monitors. Brad, walk us through that, how that works or what they're doing, and how intriguing that might be to someone who loves sensors.
Brad: I heard a story about a herd that's preg-checking only with a sensor system. I believe if the cow doesn't come back into heat on the sensor system, she's pregnant, and kick her into a different pen. It seemed that the farmer was quite accurate in being able to pick the pregnant and non-pregnant cows. It goes with the blood test. It's either a yes or no. We did that with our open cows. We went back and looked through all the open cows that we got based on our blood and went "Oh, yes, open."
The sensor system showed that they came back into a heat again. Who knows what that will bode for the future when farmers start preg-checking based on sensor systems. I would be a little apprehensive about that. I think it could be used in a combination with blood or milk to determine those. If you get open cows, you can certainly determine to see if they actually are open or it can be used as a double-check but I don't think I'm ready to just preg-check with a sensor system yet.
No, I'm not there yet but it sounds like there are farmers doing this and it might be something to think about into the future on how this might work. It would be interesting to hear your thoughts about that I'm not sold on it, but I think it goes along with some of the same things we're talking about with blood and milk. It's a yes or no and if you're 90% accurate, maybe that's good enough. I don't know.
Joe: Yes, we don't need to get into a debate on specificity and sensitivity of testing today. That could really bog the audience down.
Brad: Exactly.
Joe: But when we look at doing that, I think the value, I, like you, I'm not quite ready to depend solely on the activity monitor. Mostly, in my opinion, because of confirming the breed date thing and not having quite enough information, I think anytime you have more information about a cow that's called open to confirm that she's open, that is excellent because that is the worst thing that we can do. In this whole pregnancy testing thing, is to call a pregnant cow open. There's a lot of work that goes into a pregnancy. It could potentially change her career. You're making potentially a life-and-death decision on this cow by calling her open. That's how I look at preg-checking.
Brad: You're right.
Joe: If we can find extra information that helps us say that open diagnosis is correct, I'm all for it. I think that is an excellent use of the tool. Again, I want as much information, when I say open, as possible because this is what I tell vet students, is that it is a life or death decision potentially for that cow depending on how many times she's been bred, how old she is, where she is in her lactation. You could be killing this cow by saying open. You better know. Yes, I love the using a tool in that way. As a confirmatory test, it sounds great. Again, I'm not ready to depend on it, wholly.
Brad: For us in our herd, we can tell the cows that aren't cycling either. You can pick that up quite easily, the cows that are not cycling. There may be something there in the future, maybe I need to do a study or something on that, but I'm not ready to say, "Yes, we're doing a sensor, preg-checking model." I'm not there yet.
Joe: I think there's some work that could be done there, especially with the, like you said, non-cycling cows. You can probably pick up cystic cows too. A lot of times with an activity monitor, confirming that opens is great. Having initial diagnosis of pregnancy might be great, and then checking in with an arm later, I think there's a lot there that has a lot of value and importantly, more importantly than anything else, saves a lot of people a lot of time. All right. I think we'll call it there. We've been talking for 30ish minutes and that's plenty. Any final thoughts, Brad?
Brad: Well, if you've stayed to the end and listened to Joe and I banter the whole time and you have any thoughts, it would be interesting to hear if anybody else is doing anything on and how they're preg-checking if they're moving into the future. I'd be curious to know.
Joe: Yes, and I'd also be curious to know if anyone has a different model with their veterinarian. We have big herds that have veterinarians that are solely for those herds. We have traveling ambulatory veterinarians and we have traditional models of how they charge. I would be interested if there's anyone listening that has a different model of how that relationship works with their veterinarian because I'd be interested to hear what that looks like, whether that's a retainer type model or something like that and how you have that relationship with your veterinarian because I think again, that's going to have to change moving forward as well.
All right. With that questions, comments, [unintelligible 00:28:03], and rebuttals, they go to That's Catch us on Twitter @UMNmoosroom and @UMNFarmSafety. Catch Bradley on Instagram @UMNwcrocdairy. Check out our website That should be plenty of plugs for everyone. Thank you for listening. We'll catch you next week. Bye.
Brad: Bye.
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