Organic Dairy Herd Health: Reproductive Management from Breeding through Freshening

eOrganic author:

Linda Tikofsky


Adapted with permission from: Mendenhall, K. (ed.) 2009. The organic dairy handbook: a comprehensive guide for the transition and beyond. Northeast Organic Farming Asociation of New York, Inc., Cobleskill, NY. (Available online at:, verified 18 July 2012).

The Fundamentals of Reproduction

A sound reproductive program is essential to the financial health of the organic dairy. A fundamental goal should be to breed cows back in a timely manner so that daily milk production remains high and a steady supply of new heifers is available for replacements or sale. Organic dairies cannot use artificial hormones for breeding or for treating reproductive problems. Instead, they must rely on an understanding of the heat cycle, good heat detection, and natural alternative treatments to keep the pregnancy rate high.

Reproduction, however, can be negatively impacted by a number of factors including (but certainly not limited to) poor nutrition, inadequate heat detection, mishandling of semen and insemination technique, diseases, weather stresses, and housing (e.g., slippery floors). Having a basic understanding of the anatomy and physiology of your dairy cows will help you to better troubleshoot their reproductive problems.


Organic dairies cannot use artificial hormones for breeding or to treat reproductive problems. Instead they must rely on an understanding of the heat cycle, good heat detection, and natural alternative treatments to keep the pregnancy rate high.

Observing a standing heat is the best way to judge the time to inseminate or breed a cow. Some farms may use paint heat detection devices (check with your certifier to see if these are allowed) or other physical methods but nothing beats watching your cows for heats twice daily. This will occur most naturally on pasture where cows have good footing, but can also be accomplished inside if floors are not slippery and if the cows have room to move.

Cows ovulate about 12 to 16 hours after a standing heat so most producers use the "Morning-Evening" rule for breeding. If a farmer observes a cow in standing heat in the morning, he/she will breed her that evening; if a cow is observed in standing heat in the evening, she will be bred in the morning.

Although frozen semen contains small amounts of antibiotics, artificial insemination is allowed on organic dairies for safety reasons and to improve genetics by breeding for selected traits. Some farms still use natural service (breeding by a bull) if good heat detection is difficult, for "clean-up" (breeding cows that have not been successfully bred by AI), or on virgin heifers. Additionally, some farmers feel that available semen does not possess the genetic traits they desire. All bulls are potentially dangerous animals and you should manage them with caution and respect and follow some basic considerations.

Guidelines for Working Safely with Bulls

  • Raise bull calves in a group or on a nurse cow for proper socialization.
  • Know aggressive behavior in bulls.
  • Never run from bulls.
  • Remove bulls from herd at the first sign of aggressive behavior.

Reproductive Challenges

After mastitis, reproductive problems are usually the second biggest headache for dairy producers (both conventional and organic), but a systematic approach can help you solve many of these problems. A brief summary of the major bovine reproductive problems is summarized in Table 1.

Table 1. Summary of reproductive challenges, potential causes, and management considerations.
Challenge Definition Factors Involved Management Considerations
Anestrus--True Failure to come into heat; ovaries are not cycling.
  • Lack of energy in diet.
  • Low hormone levels because of feeding excessive stored feeds.
  • Cystic ovaries.
  • Uterine infections.
  • Anemia.
  • Evaluate ration for energy balance.
  • Feed adequate amounts of trace minerals (selenium, iron, copper, phosphorous) and vitamins.
  • Feed fresh forage or stored forages that contain estrogens (red clover).
  • Have veterinarian perform physical to detect anemia, cystic ovaries, or infections.
Anestrus Failure to detect heats.
  • Poor animal identification.
  • Poor record-keeping.
  • Cows in an environment where they cannot express estrus (crowded).
  • Not enough time to watch cows.
  • Keep good estrous cycle records.
  • Increase time spent watching cows.
  • Provide good footing.
  • Consider tail paint.
Cystic Ovaries Large cysts on ovaries that last more than 10 days; cows may be constantly in heat or not cycling.
  • High estrogens in feeds (legumes or molds).
  • Genetics.
  • Calcium:Phosphorus ratio greater than 2:1.
  • Older cows.
  • Forage analysis (calcium, phosphorus, mycotoxins).
  • Avoid cows and bulls that produce cystic daughters.
Persistent CLs (corpus luteum) CLs that are present on the ovary beyond 20 days in a non-pregnant cow.
  • High milk production.
  • Uterine infection.
  • Evaluate diet for energy imbalance (too little energy).
Retained Placenta (RP) Failure to drop placenta within 24 hours of calving.
  • Twin births or difficult calvings.
  • Selenium/vitamin E/vitamin A deficiencies.
  • Fat dry cows.
  • Infection (bacterial or viral).
  • Low-grade milk fever.
  • Review selenium and vitamin A and E levels in dry cow diet.
  • Avoid weight gain in dry period.
  • Select bulls for easy calving.
  • Calcium supplements.
Metritis Infected discharge that last more than 2 weeks post-calving.
  • Secondary to retained placenta.
  • Difficult calving.
  • Poor hygiene during an assisted calving.
  • Calve in clean areas and use sanitized equipment when assisting calving.
  • Address factors that result in RPs.
  • Feed maximum amounts of vitamin E/selenium.
Pyometra Severe infection of uterus with yellow, foul-smelling discharge.
  • See metritis (above).
  • Poor infusion technique when treating metritis.
  • See metritis (above).
  • Uterine infusion by veterinarian (iodine, chlorhexidine-check with certifier).
  • Antibiotics, prostaglandins, and removal from herd in severe cases.
Repeat Breeders Cows requiring 3 or more inseminations.
  • Poor insemination technique.
  • Improper handling of semen.
  • Early death of embryo (rough rectals, bacterial, or viral infection).
  • Bull infertility.
  • Sexually spread diseases.
  • Heat stress.
  • Culture/testing for infectious diseases.
  • Good quality forage.
  • Careful timing of breeding.
  • New bull tested for high fertility.
  • Review AI technique and semen handling.
  • Veterinary examination.
  • Vaccination.
Abortions Loss of calf between 42 and 260 days.
  • Genetic problems.
  • Fungal toxins.
  • Bacterial and viral infections.
  • Multiple calves.
  • Injury (rough palpation).
  • Nitrate/nitrite poisoning.
  • Neospora.
  • Forage/feed analysis.
  • Vaccination.
  • Testing of aborted fetus.
  • Water analysis.
  • Careful palpation.

Alternative Reproductive Therapies

The following therapies may not be scientifically evaluated or appropriate for all farms. Make sure you consult the References and Citations section at the end of this article for specific instructions.

  • Homeopathy, dependent on cow's presentation and symptoms.
  • Botanicals, wild yam/cramp bark/black cohosh, flax seed, evening primrose, dong quai, and vitamin B6 daily until heat.
  • Herbal antibiotic tincture infusion.
  • Metritis: garlic/aloe infusion.
  • Pyometra: pulsatilla infusion.
  • Failure to cycle: damiana.

Care and Management of the Fresh Cow

Management of the fresh cow actually begins during the dry period. Nutrition (energy balance, minerals, and vitamin levels) is one area of greatest impact. The length of the dry period is also a consideration for healthy fresh cows. It should be long enough (more than 45 days so that udder dry off is complete and taking advantage of natural healing factors) but not too long (more than 60 days is too long and cows risk becoming fat). Rather than sending dry cows to a "back 40" pasture and forgetting about them, observe them regularly.

Fresh cows are fragile cows and should be monitored closely so that problems can be detected promptly, allowing for timely interventions. What happens to a cow during the first month after calving can set the stage for the rest of her lactation. Designing a fresh cow protocol (Table 2) to ensure that all cows get consistent evaluation and management is recommended.

Table 2. Recommended fresh cow procedures.
Timing Management Intervention
Immediately after calving.
  • Offer large amounts of fresh warm water.
  • Offer excellent quality dry hay.
  • Note if placenta drops by 24 hours.
First 10 days (perform daily).
  • Take rectal temperature daily (should be less than 103°C).
  • Note appetite, water consumption, and milk production.
  • Examine udder.
  • Test milk with California Mastitis Test.
  • Observe vulva for abnormal discharges.
  • Listen to abdomen for rumen contractions.

Disease and problems happen on every dairy farm. However if fresh cow problems increase, the total system should be reviewed (including soil balance, crops, management of dry cows, housing, etc.) so changes can be made to prevent problems in the future. Table 3 lists common fresh cow problems, contributing factors, signs, and treatments.

Table 3. Common fresh cow problems and management considerations.
Fresh Cow Problem Signs Contributing Factors Management and Treatment
Milk Fever
  • Down, trembling or wobbly cow.
  • Cold ears.
  • Normal or below normal temperature.
  • Jersey breed.
  • Older cow.
  • Calcium:phosphorus ratio in diet.
  • Magnesium deficient dry cow diet.
  • High potassium forage.
  • 500 ml calcium (± magnesium and phosphorus) in the vein and under the skin.
  • Calcium tubes orally (no calcium proprionate).
  • Forage analysis (reduce potassium, increase magnesium in dry cow diet).
Grass Tetany
  • Nervousness.
  • Wobbly cow.
  • Muscle spasms.
  • Low magnesium in forages, more common in rapid growth pastures.Improve soils to increase magnesium in forages.
  • Add 1–2 oz. magnesium/cow/day to diet.
  • Limit pasture during times of rapid growth.
  • Administer 500 ml of magnesium containing electrolyte solution in the vein.
  • Improve soils to increase magnesium in forages.
  • Add 1–2 oz. magnesium/cow/day to diet.
  • Limit pasture during times of rapid growth.
  • Administer 500 ml of magnesium containing electrolyte solution in the vein.
  • Decreased appetite.
  • Decrease milk production.
  • Ketone smell on breath.
  • Nervous behavior.
  • Other disease in the cow (twisted stomach, mastitis, uterine infection).
  • Cobalt deficiency.
  • Fat cows at calving.
  • Prevent over-conditioning in the dry period.
  • Introduce concentrates slowly in pre-fresh period.
  • IV or oral dextrose.
  • Oral glycerin (from vegetable fats).
  • Niacin boluses and other B vitamins.
  • Molasses in diet.
  • High-quality forage and feed.
  • Avoid major diet changes in early lactation.
Displaced Abomasum (Left side=LDA, right side=RDA)
  • Off feed.
  • "Ping" on left or right side of abdomen.
  • Inadequate roughage in diet.
  • Milk fever.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Other condition that decreases appetite.
  • Call veterinarian for surgical intervention.
  • Fluid therapy if dehydrated.
  • Manage ketosis and milk fever.
  • Increase fiber in diet.
  • Provide adequate exercise.
Metabolic Acidosis
  • Low milk fat test.
  • Lameness.
  • Diarrhea.
  • Liver abscesses.
  • Poor cud chewing.
  • Too much carbohydrate in feed.
  • Finely chopped forage.
  • Low fiber content of diet.
  • Mycotoxins.
  • Fast changes from high fiber to high concentrate diet.
  • Foamy manure.
  • Add sodium bicarbonate to diet or feed free choice.
  • Avoid slug feeding.
  • Evaluate fiber levels and particle size in diet.
  • Add probiotics to ration.
  • Activated charcoal in acute cases.

Alternative Therapies for the Fresh Cow

The following therapies may not be scientifically evaluated or appropriate for all farms. Make sure you consult the References and Citations section at the end of this article for specific instructions.

  • Milk fever: 2 oz. apple cider vinegar twice daily for 2 weeks prefresh; homeopathy (Calc phos).
  • Ketosis: molasses orally.
  • LDA: ginger, gentian, cayenne, sodium bicarbonate, caffeine twice daily.

Also in This Series

This article is part of a series discussing organic dairy herd health. For more information, see the following articles.

References and Citations

Published February 7, 2013

This is an eOrganic article and was reviewed for compliance with National Organic Program regulations by members of the eOrganic community. Always check with your organic certification agency before adopting new practices or using new materials. For more information, refer to eOrganic's articles on organic certification.