The heat is on at Schilling Farms in Darlington

Colleen Kottke
Wisconsin State Farmer
Brothers Brian Schilling (left) and his brother, Andy, along with their father, Bill, pay close attention to the production of their dairy herd.

DARLINGTON – The Schilling family is taking reproduction success to a new level on their third-generation dairy farm near Darlington, Wis.

Brian Schilling, the farm's herdsman who orchestrates the farm's breeding program along with herd veterinarian BJ Jones, recently shared reproduction strategies during the Hoard's Dairyman webinar on March 11.

Since coming on board as a partner in 2003, along with his brother Andy and father, Bill, Schilling has slowly, and methodically used reproduction data to develop top notch heat detection and breeding strategies that have elevated not only the herd's pregnancy rate but milk production as well.

The family's efforts have been recognized six times by the Dairy Cattle Reproduction Council, an honor no other farm has accomplished. In 2017, Brian and Andy were also honored as the commercial dairy farm managers of the year by the National Dairy Shrine.

Located in southwest Wisconsin in Lafayette County, the farm has been in the family for 47 years. Today they milk 600 cows on a double herringbone parlor three times a day and have notched a rolling herd average of 32,000 lbs. milk—about 101 lbs. per cow—4.02 percent butterfat and 3.32 percent butterfat. Schilling notes that the herd's somatic cell count is a scant 45,000.

Brian Schilling (right) marks the tail heads of cows after they are checked for pregnancy by the herd veterinarian BJ Jones of Center Hill Vet Clinic, Darlington.

While the farm is recognized as having one of the better pregnancy rates in the U.S., Jones says careful attention to detail and the animals has paid off.

"When we started, the pregnancy rate was around 30 percent. We've seen it continue to go up year after year," he said. "Right now we're at a heat detection rate of 73 percent, conception rate of 56 percent and a pregnancy rate of 40 percent in the milking herd,"

Schilling says they have had success using both conventional and sexed Holstein semen as well as conventional beef semen. 

"We've seen a 59 percent conception rate with both the conventional Holstein and beef semen, and a 45 percent conception rate with sexed Holstein semen," he said.

Schilling said the use of beef semen is such a hot topic in the breeding industry especially with the excess number of dairy heifers.

"We used to raise heifers for buyers but that market has dried up. Right now our goal is to raise only the number of heifers we need to maintain the herd size which is about 25 a month," Schilling said. "We were raising about 35 a month until we went to beef semen. At this time we're not using any more sexed semen on the cow herd."

Jones says sexed semen is used on heifers, adding that the 2 year olds have an easier time delivering the smaller calves.

"We have a lot less metritis and problems after calving, and we're trying to target our best genetics there," Jones said. "Brian is also very aggressive in culling heifers too. If they do not settle with a pregnancy after the third service, they are marked Do Not Breed."

After calving, cows are watched closely and given daily temperature checks and monitored for BHBA levels. The cows are moved back into the milking herd around 24-30 days in milk, but not before they are vaccinated with Bovi Shield Gold 5L5 and Enviracor J5.

Pretty simple program

Jones says that they use a regular Ovsynch 48 program.

"It's a pretty simple program that we've been doing it for a long time that seems to work really well for us," he said. 

Pens at the Schilling farm are walked once daily. Tail paint indicates whether the cows are pregnant (red) or ready to breed (green).

Schilling said that consistency and compliance to the Ovsynch and breeding schedules are critical to a successful program.  

"The big key is having someone dedicated to running the fertility program so that it's done in a timely fashion and it becomes routine," he said. "The right cow is getting the right shot at the right time; otherwise we won't have near the success that we do."

While the cows and Schilling prefer a set routine, he has been making gradual changes to the farm's Ovsynch program, especially the voluntary waiting period (VWP). The VWP for freshened cows was initially 60 days in milk. However, that window has gradually increased over the last 10 years.

Jones said the goal of pushing the breeding time back was to give cows a chance to peak in milk production and to ultimately improve conception rates.

"We're getting such good conception rates on the first service with the synchronization program. When you're getting over half of your cows pregnant on the first service, it takes a lot of guesswork out of the breeding," Jones said.

Conception rates have continued to improve as they extend the VWP even further. 

"After seeing the results and improved milk peaks, we moved the mature cows out to 70 days," Schilling said. "I've been pushing it back 10 days at a time. We're shooting for 90 days right now and I may go up to 100 days on April 1 to see if I can push it any more or not."

Schilling says that he won't breed any cows with mastitis until they're back in the main milking stream. Cows that are open after 180 days in milk are culled from the herd.

"It used to be 200 days in milk but that number has been creeping down," Jones pointed out.

The pens are walked daily for heat detection and bred by an A.I. technician from Genex.

Cow comfort

Other changes that have led to improved fertility rates for the herd include cow comfort: longer and wider, sand-bedded stalls along with improved fan placement and soakers in holding and feed areas. The fans in the two freestall barns begin turning when the temperature hits 68 degrees while the soakers are activated at 67 degrees.

Jones says that heat abatement has played a big role in keeping conception rates steady during the warmer months of the year. 

"The Schilling's fans come on long before anyone else's. They do such a good job with cow cooling that you don't see a summer slump during the hot, humid months of July and August," Jones said. "We're getting a lot of cows bred no matter what the conditions."

Sand-bedded stalls and heat abatement measures keep cows comfortable throughout the year at Schilling Farms.

Dry cows and heifers housed outdoors also have protection from the elements with shade cloths that are erected over the lots in May.

"I don't think you can overdo cooling," Schilling said.

Breeding decisions start long before animals reach maturity. The Schilling brothers implemented genomic testing in 2011, with the bottom 15 percent of heifers being culled based on Net Merit data.

"Early on our breeding team emphasized bulls with a high Sire Conception Rate (SCR) and Daughter Pregnancy Rate (DPR)," Schilling said. "We have placed less emphasis on this over the last several years and have focused more on breeding for components and wellness traits."

Schilling adds that the consistent use of high NM$ and DPR bulls has led to improved fertility in the herd, just one more successful strategy that has paid off for the family.