Improving your in-calf rate

Trudy and Matthew Holmes.


By Samantha Tennent – DairyNZ developer


21 August 2018

While we’re in the thick of calving, it’s hard to believe mating season is just around the corner. 

I know for many of you, improving six week in-calf rates is always high on the agenda, and I can understand why. All the farmers I’ve talked to with a high six week in-calf rate say it makes their life easier, the job more enjoyable, and not to mention the farm more profitable.

The average six week in-calf rate on Kiwi farms is currently around 65 percent. That’s a wee way off the sector target of 78 percent. It’s a challenge, but some farmers are already hitting it.

So what are they doing differently? The journalist in me wanted to find out.

I contacted a former colleague at Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) and asked to talk to a farmer who managed to improve their in-calf rate.

She put me in touch with Hawke’s Bay dairy farmer Mike Sales, who dramatically improved the in-calf rate at the previous 650-cow farm he managed with his wife Angela in Rotorua. The pair are now equity managers for a 1200-cow farm in Patoka.

Over the span of four years, Mike, Angela and their team managed to improve the in-calf rate from 52 percent to an impressive 78 percent just by making small changes. What an amazing effort! I asked him how.

One key area Mike focused on was ensuring cows hit optimum body condition scores (BCS) pre-calving. He aimed for a BCS of 5 for cows and 5.5 for heifers.

He says BCS targets are extremely important as if cows are too light or too heavy they won’t come in heat.

“Your BCS target is your lifeline. It’s psychological for the cow; if she’s at the right weight she knows she’s ready to be in-calf,” he says.

“After calving we try to hit 4.5 BCS. In the lead up to mating, we’ll increase the protein percentage in the feed supplement in the shed to give them more energy and help them reach their BCS target.”

Mike also focused on training his staff to ensure they all knew what signs to look for to tell if a cow is on heat. He believes it’s important the whole team is trained in this area, not just senior staff, as improving in-calf rates is a team effort.

Mike says record keeping is equally as important.

“After three weeks of recording during premating, we have a list of those that didn’t cycle. We can then analyse why and decide what treatment option we will take.

“It always pays to record what’s going on on-farm. It’s an additional workload but once you do it regularly it becomes a habit and it pays off.”

He says communication is also vital so that your team understands what you’re trying to achieve.

Finally, Mike encouraged farmers with low in-calf rates to remain optimistic.

“It’s a long-term process. Consistency is key,” he says.

I know there’s no one-size-fits-all approach, but I hope some of Mike’s advice helps you this mating season.

And to add my two cents worth, I know it’s a busy time of year but try and come up with a plan with your team sooner rather than later, so you’re prepared to hit the ground running this mating season.

If you’re stuck where to start, DairyNZ’s InCalf Fertility Focus Report, available through your herd recording software, is a great tool to assist with this process. It’s like a WOF for your herd’s reproduction performance and allows you to look for trends and opportunities that may only require a small change, but make a big impact. Alternatively, talk to your farm consultant, mating company, vet, or your local DairyNZ consulting officer.

Finally, whatever approach you choose, don’t forget to review it regularly to track if its working and identify if changes need to be made.

For more information about improving your herd’s reproductive performance, visit


Helen Thoday

Samantha Tennent

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Senior Engagement & Communications Manager
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