Back to basics on breeding: The key factors farmers must consider to get cows back in calf this spring

With AI and bulling less than two weeks away, taking advantage of the narrow window to get cows back in calf is essential

Get the basics right and you’ll hit your targets for breeding
Get the basics right and you’ll hit your targets for breeding

Eamon O'Connell

We have been waiting for what seems like an eternity, but finally the spring proper has arrived. We've been so busy dealing with the shortage of fodder and the terrible weather that the breeding season has crept up on us. AI and bulling are now less than two weeks away on many farms.

The late spring means a back-log of tasks that have yet to be tackled such as slurry, fertiliser and cattle turnout. We can't let breeding take a back seat however. The clock is ticking and the narrow window of opportunity to get a cow back in calf for next spring is more important this year than ever. With a jam-packed few weeks ahead, we must stick to the basics to get cows back in calf this spring.


There are a lot of thin cows around the country at present. Cows in poor body condition will struggle to go back in calf in a compact spring calving system. They need energy in their diet to stand any chance of cycling early and holding to first service. Identify cows that need extra feeding and make a plan to get them moving in the right direction.

Your vet and nutritionist will advise you on the best type of concentrate to supplement thin cows with at the start of the breeding season. With a flush of grass on the horizon, it is important that any increase or change in concentrate supplementation is made gradually in order to avoid dietary upsets.

Blood sampling

Use tools such as blood sampling and milk recording data to determine the level of effect the fodder crisis has had on your herd. For example, a low milk protein percentage is a direct indicator of a negative energy balance in your herd. Your vet will be able to identify the extent of the problem and advise on a corrective course of action.

Heat detection

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Use two heat detection aids to eliminate errors. Tail paint is the most tried and trusted method. Scratch cards are very accurate and also quite affordable. A vasectomised bull with a chin ball will make heat detection very easy, provided the bull is strong enough and hasn't too much work to do. A simple rule of thumb should be one bull to every 40 cows. Any more than this and the bull will inevitably become tired or injured and therefore ineffective. Any bull that is being used as a teaser should be vasectomised at least 30 days before he is needed.

Breeding bulls

A bull breeding soundness examination should be carried out by your vet on all breeding bulls prior to mating. The bull needs a yearly NCT. A faulty bull needs to be identified before mating starts because if we wait for the problem to become apparent, the result will be late calvers and empty cows.


Ensure all vaccinations are up to date - Lepto, BVD and IBR being the most prevalent. If there is any concern about the disease status of your herd, talk to your vet about taking some blood samples to screen for disease prevalence.

Cell count

It has been proven that cows with a cell count of greater than 200,000 will have lower conception rates and pregnancy rates than low cell-count cows. Identify high cell-count cows and decide if treatment is warranted.


Lame cows need to be addressed immediately. A lame cow will show decreased signs of heat and will have much lower conception rates.

Pre-breeding scanning

If possible, all cows should be scanned before the start of the breeding season. This allows dirty cows, cows with cysts and non-cycling cows to be identified and treated. This will ensure that every cow is cycling before breeding starts which will ensure that more cows go in calf quicker.


Look back on last year's mating and calving records. Identify any areas you think could be improved on and put a plan in place.


Ensure heifers are at 60pc of their mature body weight at breeding. If they are going to be grazed away from the farm yard, a plan should be put in place to allow time for accurate heat detection.


Give the crush, drafting system and pens a quick check this week, especially facilities on out-farms. Repairs should be carried out so that everything runs smoothly once breeding begins.

AI tank

Ensure it has been serviced and liquid nitrogen levels are at an adequate level.

If we get the basics right for breeding over the next few weeks, we will hit our targets for submission and conception, and we can banish the effects of the last few months to a distant memory.

Eamon O'Connell is a vet with Summerhill Veterinary Clinic in Nenagh, Co Tipperary; Facebook: The Moovet - Summerhill Vet clinic

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