VET ON CALL: Why some cows will not conceive just yet

Wednesday March 18 2020

Josphine Kirui of confort feeds during an exhibition on African Dairy at KICC Nairobi. PHOTO | ANTHONY OMUYA | NMG


One of the easiest ways these days to reach farmers and understand their problems is through WhatsApp groups.

Last week, I picked this message from a group I belong. “One of the major problems facing cattle farmers is failure of their cows to conceive despite multiple Artificial Inseminations (AI). At various farmer field days I have attended, we ask this question but the standard answer from experts is that affected livestock keepers are not observing heat signs well.”

“But this cannot be in every region, from Nyeri to Nakuru, Meru and Siaya. I believe there could be more – may be fake semen is on sale or there is rise in quacks administering AI,” the farmer concluded and asked me to explore the issue.

My experience and field observations, coupled with training exonerates the much-blamed farmer for lack of good heat observation in cattle.

I have handled many AI conception failure cases over my long practice experience with varying degrees of success. What I can assure farmers is that AI conception failure is a harambee activity involving many players and factors.

Challenges of AI

To get to the bottom of the problem, I telephoned several farmers. Now, before delving into the discussions, let me first review what we scientifically know about the key factors that determine the outcome of AI in cattle. The four main challenges of AI success are poor heat detection, poor semen storage, incompetent inseminators and inappropriate cows that are stressed, sick or malnourished. That is the long and short of all your AI problems when examined in totality.

Certainly, a farmer has a very big role to influence the outcome of AI conception success. However, she is not solely to blame because in many cases, cattle farmers are not well versed with reproduction cycle and the handling of semen and insemination.

I am of the opinion that poor heat detection and inappropriate cows are the top causes of insemination failure. Why do I say so? Most cattle farmers keep poor or no records of their animals regarding breeding, management and production. For that reason, they never know when the animal is supposed to get on heat. In many cases, animals will be reported very late and they end up failing to conceive.
If you want to do good heat detection, you must be meticulous and prompt. You must keep good records from the first insemination to the time the animal is confirmed pregnant. Most animals will come on heat regularly every 18 to 23 days but the majority will do so every 21 days. A farmer must do diligent observation during the 5-day window by checking for heat in the morning and in the afternoon.

Active signs of heat

Some animals do not show the active signs of heat like mooing, restlessness, breaking out of the pen and mounting other cows or standing to be mounted. However, all cows will show a swollen vulva and discharge of clear mucous. So, you not only observe the cow for heat but you must actually inspect its genitals at the time heat is expected.

To attain maximum conception success, the half-century-old AM-PM rule is very applicable. Animals showing heat in the morning are served in the afternoon of the same day 8-12 hours from the time heat was observed. Cows that show heat in the afternoon are served the following morning before 10am.

Research shows that conception rates using AI drop drastically as insemination is done further away from the recommended 8-12 hours since observation. Farmers must, therefore, be very accurate in detecting the commencement of heat.

Let us now turn to insemination of inappropriate cows. These are animals that are malnourished due to poor or unbalanced feeding, stressed from living in muddy or very rough pens, sick, those with poorly functioning ovaries or even infertile cattle. The blame here is shared between the farmer and the inseminator. The farmer has not taken proper care of the animals while the inseminator is not advising the farmer properly on cattle husbandry.

Insemination fees

Some farmers tell me the inseminators like repeat breeding animals because the farmer will still pay full insemination fees. This is foolhardy because such service will only end up with the inseminator losing business as farmers flee to more effective service providers

There are also incompetent inseminators who are either learning, negligent or are simply quacks just out to fleece the farmers. Farmers should be on the lookout for such people and promptly report them to the government veterinary officer, the Kenya Veterinary Board or the local administration. Any inseminator should show the farmer his verifiable qualifications and inseminator’s license before they touch a cow.

My phone discussions with farmers were quite interesting and fortunately, all had good outcomes. However, not 100 percent of the animals progressed into regular active heat and conception after the owners implemented my advice.

Rukwaro from Ng’arua realised his animals were not showing heat because he had kept them in muddy pens. His quest to make more manure had led him to put plant matter in the pens to decompose when mixed with urine and dung. The result had been very dirty, wet and miserable cattle that failed to conceive on insemination. He has since changed to dry clean floor and he no longer has problems with insemination.

For Miriam Chege of Naivasha, I advised her and the husband to start feeding their cattle sufficient mineral salt supplement formulated for heifers, milk and for inducing heat depending on each animal’s stage of production.

Her heifers and cows were not getting on heat while others had erratic heat cycles of 17 to 24 days. Miriam gave the animals the salt for one month. All the animals, except one, developed routine cycles and some of them have now been inseminated. We are hopeful for successful conception. My advice to farmers is to ask AI and animal health service providers the hard questions about their qualifications and experience, government licensing, semen storage and viability and why their animals are not conceiving.