Anyone can learn to use ultrasound on their dairy farm, but producers need to know their reproduction numbers to financially justify the purchase.
Dr. Tom Wheal of FarmTech Solutions, a provider of ultrasound technology for farms, told farmers at the Canadian Dairy Xpo that the first step to determining the value of ultrasound on their farm is to know their pregnancy rate.
Wheal says that increasing the frequency of pregnancy checks can significantly help improve the number of pregnancies on a farm. Reproductive efficiency will then determine payback on an ultrasound machine.
Portable and easy to operate ultrasound machines are commonly used on many livestock farms, including hog, beef and dairy.
However, most dairy farmers have their cows checked for pregnancy by ultrasound by veterinarians every two weeks or a month.
Wheal says veterinarians are increasingly willing to pass manual tasks that can be learned by most people, like ultrasound, onto others, so they can concentrate their time on areas where they can have greater value.
However, he says, they should first talk to their veterinarian before buying an ultrasound machine to discuss how it will fit into the farm operation.
“Before you can talk about the economics of ultrasound use, you have to know what your preg rate is and have to understand what it is,” Wheal says.
Pregnancy rate is defined as the percentage of cows on a farm that are eligible to become pregnant that do become pregnant within a given time.
Wheal says to calculate pregnancy rate, take a farm’s conception rate multiplied by heat detection rate.
“It’s the current number we have to judge how efficient you are.”
The industry average is 14 percent, a number at which a farm is likely having a difficult time producing enough heifers to replace its cows.
Better is closer to 22 to 25 percent, he says.
Wheal says changing from twice monthly to weekly pregnancy checks can improve pregnancy rate by about five percentage points.
On a 100-cow farm, with a 15 percent pregnancy rate, moving it to 20 percent can mean saving about $25,000 per year.
Ultrasound testing has its greatest impact in helping increase the frequency of pregnancy checking.
If a farmer owns an ultrasound machine, he can check pregnancies with less cost than paying for another visit from a veterinarian.
Wheal says he has seen too many ultrasound machines gather dust on farms, and there are three main barriers to their use.
The first is a lack of commitment. Don’t get discouraged, says Wheal, and make sure there is enough training.
“It’s very daunting the first time you see an ultrasound image,” he says, but he has seen people with many levels of ability trained.
Stick to a schedule, he says. Producers should pick one day a week to do the testing and remain committed to doing it.
A third barrier is labour. Wheal says many farms have no extra labour to hire or labour flexibility with current staff.
Fear of using the technology shouldn’t be a barrier, says Wheal, especially if a farm already has employees who breed their cows.
Those staff members are already familiar with a cow’s reproductive physiology and can transfer that knowledge to using an ultrasound machine.
The more important factor is whether or not an ultrasound machine can help improve the pregnancy rate.
If the pregnancy rate is already near 25 percent, then an ultrasound machine will have little effect on that rate. But if the pregnancy rate is 14 or 15 percent, then Wheal says it’s a technology worth considering.