Troubleshooting infertility problems in dairy cattle

This troubleshooting guide discusses herd infertility problems and possible causes and includes suggestions for prevention and control.

Retained placenta

Failure to expel the placenta (afterbirth) within 12 hours after calving is retained placenta. Incidence of retained placenta in dairy herds should not normally exceed 8%.

Possible factors involved

  1. Specific infections such as brucella, Ieptospira, campylobacter, infectious bovine rhinotracheitis (IBR) and others can result in retained placenta. These infections may cause abortion but can also cause retained placenta following delivery at term.
  2. Non-specific infections by a wide range of bacteria and viruses that occur during pregnancy or at calving can be associated with retained placenta.
  3. Twin births and abnormal deliveries, including prolonged or difficult deliveries or caesarian sections, are often followed by placental retention.
  4. Deficiencies of selenium, vitamin A or vitamin E can increase incidence of retained placenta.
  5. Excessive energy intake and/or prolonged dry periods lead to overconditioned cows with increased risk for retained placenta.

Troubleshooting and control suggestions

  1. Diagnose specific infections with blood testing and/or culturing. If an infection is identified, use indicated control methods.
  2. Minimize exposure to non-specific organisms by keeping calving areas clean and well bedded. Don’t use maternity pens for any other purposes.
  3. Breed heifers to bulls with a record of calving ease. Observe freshening cows and heifers closely. If assistance is required, do so in a clean, gentle manner.
  4. In selenium-deficient areas, provide supplemental selenium. Supplement Vitamins A and E, plus selenium according to recommendations.
  5. Avoid overconditioning of dry cows. Dry off cows in the body condition in which they should freshen.

Metritis

A uterine discharge persisting beyond 2 weeks or having a foul odor is evidence of metritis.

Possible factors involved

  1. Many cows with retained placenta will develop metritis.
  2. Injury to the reproductive tract can occur with a difficult calving or if excessive force is used at calving. Injuries can also occur at the time of breeding or uterine treatment.
  3. Cows and heifers are highly susceptible to infection at calving. If the calving area is unclean or if assistance and/or treatment is unsanitary, metritis is a probable result.
  4. Uterine boluses can cause a sterile pus condition due to body reaction to foreign matter.
  5. Selenium or vitamin E deficiency may be associated with metritis.
  6. Overconditioninq may predispose cows to many health problems including retained placenta, metritis, acetonemia and displaced abomasum.

Troubleshooting and control suggestions

  1. If incidence of retained placenta is greater than 8%, see control measures listed earlier. Conditions that predispose cows to retained placenta often lead to metritis.
  2. Calve cows in a clean place.
    a. Locate calving area to permit frequent observation.
    b. Clean, sanitize and re-bed maternity pens after each calving. Use long-stem bedding instead of sawdust if possible.
    c. Rest calving sites for one to two months when metritis is widespread. Calve cows in a new, clean site.
    d. Keep maternity pens free from all animals except calving cows.
    e. If assistance at calving time is required, use clean, disinfected instruments; employ good sanitary technique; work with the contractions of the cow; and don’t exert excessive pressure. Be sure that calf position is normal before attempting to pull the calf. Seek veterinary assistance as needed.
  3. Treat metritis and retained placenta according to veterinarian recommendations.
  4. Supplement selenium as recommended by the herd nutritionist and/or veterinarian.
  5. Avoid overconditioning during late lactation and dry period, while maintaining adequate, balanced vitamin and mineral intake.
  6. Follow veterinarian recommendations for treatment of metritis. Avoid overtreatment and routine medication of the uterus unless a cow is known to be infected.

Cystic Ovaries

Ovarian cysts are structures that persist on one or both ovaries for 10 days or more. Fertility in cystic cows is reduced by hormonal changes, changes in uterine tone and, in many cases, failure to release an ovum (egg).

Possible Factors Involved

  1. Excessive calcium intake or wide calcium:phosphorus ratio. Total dietary intake of greater than two parts calcium to one part phosphorus may lead to increased incidence of cysts.
  2. High estrogen intake whether from feeds or mold toxins, may increase the incidence of cystic ovaries.
  3. Genetic predisposition.
  4. Stressful conditions or health problems at calving or early postpartum.

Troubleshooting and Control Suggestions

  1. Analyze forages and check the feed program to insure that total diet calcium-phosphorus ratio is between 1.5:1 and 2:1. Include all forages, grains and free-choice minerals in estimating mineral intake.
  2. Avoid use of injectable estrogen products unless recommended by the herd veterinarian. Analyze feeds suspected of containing zearalenone or other mold toxins. Avoid or limit mycotoxin contaminated feeds and those containing plant estrogens for breeding animals.
  3. Since genetic predisposition to ovarian cysts can occur, reduce herd incidence selective culling of cows and proper bull selection.

Anestrus

Anestrus, or failure to show signs of estrus is often a failure to detect estrus.

Possible Factors Involved

  1. Undetected estrous signs in cows with normal ovarian activity resulting from:
    a. inadequate estrous detection;
    b. inadequate animal identification and/or records;
    c. lack of opportunity for cows to express estrus, i.e., cows not turned out; slippery footing; lameness or stiffness; groups too small for adequate interaction.
  2. True anestrus, lack of ovarian activity, caused by:
    a. anemia—due to anaplasmosis, internal or external parasites, nutrient deficiency;
    b. phosphorus deficiency;
    c. energy deficiency;
    d. low hormone levels;
    e. cystic ovaries (70% of cystic cows are anestrus.);
    f. pyometra or pus in the uterus.
  3. Quiet estrus or silent estrus—normal ovarian activity with little or no sign of estrus. Most of the factors associated with true anestrus (anemia, phosphorus deficiency, energy deficiency and low endocrine levels) can also be associated with quiet estrus.

Troubleshooting and Control Suggestions

  1. Maintain adequate reproductive records.
  2. Closely observe cows for estrus. Provide a non-slippery surface for estrous detection.
  3. Check problem cows for anemia. Treat any afflicted animals and correct predisposing causes.
  4. Ensure feed program meets herd nutritional requirements.
  5. Have cows examined for uterine infection, cystic ovaries and for evidence of ovarian activity.
  6. If possible, have cows in a weight-gaining condition as desired breeding time approaches.
  7. Control conditions around calving time and early lactation that may contribute to anestrus problems (retained placenta, metritis, ketosis).

Repeat Breeders

Cows requiring three or more services before conception or culling are generally designated as repeat breeders.

Possible Factors Involved

  1. Embryonic or early fetal mortality caused by:
    a. poor nutrition
    b. trauma
    c. infectious diseases such as; trichomoniasis, vibriosis, Ieptospira, ureaplasm, mycoplasma, or haemophilus.
  2. Breeding too early or too late in relation to time of ovulation.
  3. Use of low fertility sires.
  4. Semen damaged by improper storage or handling.
  5. Poor insemination technique.

Troubleshooting and Control Procedures

  1. If natural service is used, test for vibriosis and trichomoniasis. If present, discontinue natural service and cull the bull. Use a vaccine for protection against vibriosis.
  2. Test for Ieptospira, IBR, BVD. Use available vaccines for protection against these organisms.
  3. Avoid gross overfeeding of grain, especially after breeding.
  4. Carefully observe estrous onset and duration. Breed 12 hours after initial observation. On Iong-estrous cows (more than 24 hours), inseminate a second time 12 to 18 hours after the first insemination.
  5. Have a veterinarian examine repeat breeder cows for presence of endometritis (low-grade uterine infections), delayed ovulation or other abnormalities.
  6. Use high fertility bulls.
  7. Have semen handling and insemination technique checked by competent Al personnel. Semen viability of representative straws can be analyzed.

Abortions

Causes of abortion can be either infectious or non-infectious. In about 70% of abortions, the cause cannot be determined even with careful laboratory examination. In the absence of specific infections, a herd abortion rate of around 3% is normal.

Possible Factors Involved

  1. Genetic defects— A severely abnormal embryo or fetus is likely to be absorbed or expelled in early pregnancy.
  2. Multiple fetuses— Abortion rate is higher in multiple-fetus pregnancies than in single pregnancies.
  3. Injuries— In early pregnancy (less than 60 days) excessive manipulation of the reproductive tract at the time of rectal examination can cause abortion. Passage of an insemination or infusion instrument into the uterus of a pregnant cow can cause abortion. Severe injuries in late pregnancy such as falling on a hard surface can induce abortion.
  4. Specific infections— Brucellosis, Ieptospirosis, IBR, BVD, Iysteriosis, vibriosis, trichomoniasis, mycotic infections and others can cause abortion.
  5. Toxicities— Acute nitrate, cyanide, silo gas and some weeds can cause abortion.
  6. Drug-induced abortions– Cortisone-type drugs and prostaglandins, among others, can cause abortion.

Troubleshooting and Control Procedures

  1. Avoid injuries. Groove slippery concrete surface and/or apply nonslip materials to floor. Keep cows off icy areas.
  2. Use extreme care in handling the reproductive tract of possibly pregnant cows.
  3. When an abortion occurs, submit samples (the entire fetus and at Ieast a portion of the placenta including a cotyledon in separate plastic bags) to a reference laboratory for evaluation. Draw blood from an aborting cow at the time of the abortion and again three weeks later for serologic testing for brucellosis, leptospirosis, IBR and BVD.
  4. Eliminate cow access to swamps, ponds or standing water.
  5. If toxicities are suspected test likely feed and water sources.
  6. Most abortion-inducing drugs, such as cortisones and prostaglandins, are prescription drugs. Allow use only by a veterinarian or on his or her instruction.

Condensed by Milkproduction.com staff from a fact sheet prepared by Dr. L.J. Hutchinson

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