Michigan Dairy Review
home about events links archives contact


2008 Dairy Survey

virtual dairy cattle encyclopedia of reproduction

CornPicker for Silage Hybrids
spartan nutrient cycle card

Ehancing Fertility of Lactating Dairy Cows

Richard Pursley and Joao Paulo Martins
Department of Animal Science

The lactating dairy cow is not as fertile as she once was. And the likely culprit is not going to go away. But wait, there’s hope for ol’ Bessie. This story will outline the likely reasons for the decline of dairy cow fertility and discuss reproductive management methods to help alleviate this problem.

Infertility of the lactating dairy cow continues to be a critical problem limiting profitability and sustainability of dairy farms [1, 2]. Reproductive performance of lactating dairy cows is dependent upon service rate (or estrus detection rate), fertility of the service sire, and maternal fertility. Service rate can be controlled utilizing Ovsynch technology (Figure 1; [3, 4]). The majority of dairy producers in the U.S. regulate time to first and subsequent artificial inseminations (AI) with Ovsynch technology [5]. High fertility sires can be chosen utilizing the USDA-AIPL summaries sire conception rates. Yet, maternal fertility, defined as the mother’s ability to ovulate a competent oocyte and provide an oviductal and uterine environment capable of fertilization and complete embryonic and fetal development, continues to be the key limiting factor for successful reproductive performance in lactating dairy cows.

Conception rates of lactating cows are approximately 30% compared to 60% for virgin dairy heifers [4, 6] when inseminated following a detected estrus. Increasing conception rates of lactating cows to that of heifers would allow producers to employ the most profitable calving interval strategies for cows with different milk production levels. Aspects of maternal fertility that are limiting to conception and embryonic/fetal development are becoming better understood. Modifications to Ovsynch also are being developed to enhance maternal fertility while continuing to control service rate.


Why is Fertility Compromised in Lactating Dairy Cows?
Circulating concentrations of steroid hormones significantly change following the transition from heifer to lactating cow. Serum concentrations of progesterone and estrogen are reduced by about 50% in cows compared with heifers, even though the corpus luteum (CL; the structure in the ovary that produces progesterone) and ovulatory follicle (the structure in the ovary that produces estrogen and ovulates the egg) are larger in cows.

Figure 2: Predicted probability of pregnancy based on concentrations of progesterone (P4) at time of PGF administration in Ovsynch for cows with functional corpus luteum (CL) at time of treatment (n = 490).
*Predicted probability (chance) of pregnancy: 0.0 = 0%; 0.5 = 50%; 1.0 = 100%.


Duration of estrus also is longer in heifers. This is likely due to greater amounts of estrogen in circulation compared with cows. The difference in progesterone appears to influence follicular growth by prolonging the age of the ovulatory follicle. Therefore, oocytes (eggs) from the ovulatory follicle of lactating dairy cows may have a lesser chance to be fertilized or develop into a competent embryo compared with oocytes of heifers which have greater concentrations of progesterone [7].

What is Causing the Differences in Progesterone and Estrogen Concentrations Between Lactating Dairy Cows and Heifers?
Wiltbank and co-workers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison found that feed dry matter intake differences of lactating dairy cows impacted on circulating concentrations of progesterone and estrogen [8]. These hormones are primarily metabolized in the liver. When dry matter intake was increased so was blood flow through the liver. Thus, the greater the blood flow through the liver, the greater the steroid hormone metabolism, resulting in less estrogen and progesterone remaining in circulation.


The research suggests that lactation per se is not the root of the problem. The reduced hormone concentrations likely are associated with the large amounts of feed that lactating cows must consume to produce large quantities of milk.

How Can We Resolve this Problem?
Increasing circulating progesterone concentration during the growth of the ovulatory follicle is a key factor to increase fertility in lactating dairy cows. Cows with greater progesterone concentrations at the time of prostaglandin F2α (PGF) of Ovsynch have greater probability of pregnancy (Figure 2). Therefore, creating higher concentrations of progesterone during Ovsynch should compensate for the progesterone lost due to high metabolism by the liver of lactating dairy cows and enhance fertility.

Strategy to Increase Progesterone Concentrations at Time of PGF of

Multiple strategies previously have been tested to increase progesterone prior to PGF injection of Ovsynch. In studies that used a controlled progesterone releasing intravaginal device (or CIDR) to achieve greater concentrations of progesterone during Ovsynch, there was no significant increase in progesterone on the day of PGF injection of Ovsynch or in resulting conception rates of cycling cows [9]. Concentrations of progesterone in cycling cows with a CIDR were similar to cows without a CIDR (2.7 compared with 2.8 ng/mL) [9].

Thus, use of a CIDR may not be the best strategy to increase progesterone concentrations and enhance fertility in lactating dairy cows. We therefore examined the possibility that GnRH inducement of a second (accessory) CL during Ovsynch could be used to more effectively enhance progesterone concentrations. In this case, cows would have two CL during Ovsynch, an older CL and a younger CL (accessory CL). The idea was that this accessory CL would increase the production of progesterone and compensate for the lost by liver metabolism.

Cows had the greatest chance to ovulate a follicle and create a new accessory CL when they were on d 6 or 7 of the estrous cycle when the first GnRH of Ovsynch was administered. More than 90% ovulated a first wave dominant follicle and formed an accessory CL. When the PGF of Ovsynch was administered 7 d later, cows that ovulated had both a primary 13 or 14 d old CL and a 7 d old accessory CL. Cows with both CL (d 13 CL and d 7 CL) had correspondingly greater circulating concentrations of progesterone at time of the PGF of Ovsynch compared with cows that did not receive GnRH and only had a d 13 CL (5.22 vs.3.53 ng/mL, respectively). Thus, presence of a young (d 7) accessory CL during Ovsynch positively impacted progesterone concentrations before artificial insemination (AI).

What is the Best Way to Ensure that Cows are on d 6 of Estrus Cycle at Time of 1st GnRH of Ovsynch?
To induce the accessory CL following the first GnRH of Ovsynch cows must be pre-synchronized (prior to Ovsynch) to ensure that cows are in a stage of the estrous cycle that has both a high probability of ovulation of a dominant follicle to the first GnRH and control of subsequent CL regression with PGF. In two previous studies [10], (published and unpublished data), we observed rate of induction of accessory CL at 4, 5, 6, 7, or 8 d of the estrous cycle at the time of the first GnRH of Ovsynch.

The “d 6” interval (referred to as G6G; Figure 3, page 2) resulted in a greater percentage of cows ovulating to the first GnRH and inducing accessory CL compared with the other intervals. If cows responded to both PGF and GnRH pre-synchrony treatments and were on d 6 of the cycle at time of first GnRH of Ovsynch, 97% of cows contained accessory CL, had a greater progesterone concentrations, and a greater probability of a pregnancy.

What Current Programs Seem to be Working the Best to Achieve Greater Conception Rates?
There are several programs that enhance fertility of dairy cows that utilize the technologies described above to enhance progesterone. We recommend three programs for first AI: Double Ovsynch [11], G6G [10], and Presynch-11 [12]. The recommended resynchronization programs (setting cows up for AI following a pregnancy diagnosis) are: G6G, GGPG (for cows without a CL at diagnosis), and an abbreviated Presynch-11 (see Calendars on page 23 for details).

This article provided a basis for the concept that low progesterone in lactating dairy cows due to enhanced steroid metabolism may be the underlying cause of the low fertility that has plagued dairy herds for the past 2 decades. We have developed synchronization strategies that partially solve this problem. Enhancing the percentage of cows that respond to the first GnRH of Ovsynch allows for more cows with accessory CL, greater concentrations of progesterone at time of induced luteolysis (PGF of Ovsynch), and a greater chance for pregnancy.

Rolling Acres Farm, Allegan, MI
Merle Coffey, owner of Rolling Acres Farm, Allegan, MI utilizes G6G (see Calendar on page 23, and Figure 3 on page 2) to increase the reproductive performance of his 800-cow herd. Only cows ready for 1st AI receive the G6G program. Average days to first service for his herd is now 100 days. After first AI, if cows are detected in estrus, they are inseminated using the AM/PM rule. If cows reach pregnancy diagnosis (Biopryn at 32 d after AI) and are diagnosed as not pregnant, they are re-synchronized with Ovsynch. Monthly conception rates are displayed in Figures 4 and 5).


These Producers Get Cows Pregnant
Congratulations to Henk Knevelbaard of Fremont, MI for being awarded the 2010 Dairy Cattle Reproductive Conference Platinum Level Award. Henk and his crew (pictured) milk 1,100 cows most of which are Holstein, although, a portion of the herd is being crossed to Swedish Red and Montbeliard sires. Henk utilizes both estrus detection and timed-AI to achieve top reproductive performance. Approximately 75 % of cows that are eligible for AI are inseminated following a detected estrus and about 25 % are timed-inseminated following a Presynch-14/Ovsynch program.




1.       Lucy MC. Reproductive loss in high-producing dairy cattle: where will it end? Journal of Dairy Science 2001; 84: 1277-1293.
2.       Washburn SP, Silvia WJ, Brown CH, McDaniel BT, McAllister AJ. Trends in reproductive performance in southeastern Holstein and Jersey DHI herds. J Dairy Sci 2002; 85: 244-251.
3.       Pursley JR, Mee MO, Wiltbank MC. Synchronization of ovulation in dairy cows using PGF2alpha and GnRH. Theriogenology 1995; 44: 915-923.
4.       Pursley JR, Wiltbank MC, Stevenson JS, Garverick HA, Anderson LL. Pregnancy rates per artificial insemination for cows and heifers inseminated at a synchronized ovulation or synchronized estrus. Journal of Dairy Science 1997; 80: 295-300.
5.       USDA. Reproduction Practices on U.S. Dairy Operations. In: USDA-AFHIS-US C (ed.). Ft. Collins, CO 2009.
6.       Roth Z, Inbar G, Arav A. Comparison of oocyte developmental competence and follicular steroid content of nulliparous heifers and cows at different stages of lactation. Theriogenology 2008; 69: 932-939.
7.       Sartori R, Haughian JM, Shaver RD, Rosa GJM, Wiltbank MC. Comparison of ovarian function and circulating steroids in estrous cycles of Holstein heifers and lactating cows. J Dairy Sci 2004; 87: 905-920.
8.       Roche JF, Ireland JJ. The differential effect of progesterone on concentrations of luteinizing hormone and follicle-stimulating hormone in heifers. Endocrinology 1981; 108: 568-572.
9.       Sartori R, Sartor-Bergfelt R, Mertens SA, Guenther JN, Parrish JJ, Wiltbank MC. Fertilization and early embryonic development in heifers and lactating cows in summer and lactating and dry cows in winter. J Dairy Sci 2002; 85: 2803-2812.
10.     Wiltbank M, Lopez H, Sartori R, Sangsritavong S, Gümen A. Changes in reproductive physiology of lactating dairy cows due to elevated steroid metabolism. Theriogenology 2006; 65(1):17-29.
11.     Bello NM, Steibel JP, Pursley JR. Optimizing Ovulation to 1st GnRH Improved Outcomes to Each Hormonal Injection of Ovsynch in Lactating Dairy Cows. Journal of Dairy Science 2006; 89: 3413-3424.
12.     Stevenson JS, Pursley JR, Garverick HA, Fricke PM, Kesler DJ, Ottobre JS, Wiltbank MC. Treatment of cycling and noncycling lactating dairy cows with progesterone during Ovsynch. J Dairy Sci 2006; 89: 2567-2578.
13.     Fonseca FA, Britt JH, McDaniel BT, Wilk JC, Rakes AH. Reproductive traits of Holsteins and Jerseys. Effects of age, milk yield, and clinical abnormalities on involution of cervix and uterus, ovulation, estrous cycles, detection of estrus, conception rate, and days open. J Dairy Sci 1983; 66: 1128-1147.

Curent MDR articles

Enhancing Fertility of Lactating Dairy Cows
The lactating dairy cow is not as fertile as it used to... but there is hope.

Breakfast on
the Farm Impressons

events change impressions about modern dairy farming? Yes!

Kirkpatrick Project: Bovine Leukosis
Reported here is summary of a completed project.

Lesson in Milk Marketing
Ways to avoid some of the financial disasters of recent years.

Feed Margins & Risk Management
A hindsight on the volatility of feed prices.

Manure Transport & Land Application
A study of 13 hauling systems in MI, OH & Ontario.

Raw Milk Worth the Risk?
An update on the raw milk debate.

Thumb H20 Project: Part 2
Focusing on constituents leading to water quality issues.

CMT & Milk Quality
The continuing mastitis problems in dairy farms.

Over $80,000 Scholarship Opportunities
Michigan Dairy Memorial Scholarship Foundation retains the lead in CANR.

Success of Ag Tech Dairy Judging Teams
Results of the 2010 judging teams.