About Dairy Wellness

Breed for fewer stillbirths
Posted by Dave Erf

Successful calving is important to your dairy and your business. Yet stillbirth rates on farms continue to be higher than what anyone wants. In 2005, genetic evaluations of stillbirths showed more than 11% of first calvings of Holstein heifers resulted in stillborn calves and a 6% rate of stillbirths for subsequent calvings.1 And if you think this is a high number, think about how pricey the loss is — replacement of stillborn calves costs the dairy industry more than $125.3 million per year.2

A stillborn calf is defined as a calf born dead or one that dies within the first 48 hours post-birth. Most dairies chalk it up to a difficult calving and move on. But let’s not overlook the opportunity to prevent stillbirths and work toward raising healthy heifers for a high-yielding future in the lactating herd.

To help minimize stillbirth rates and focus management efforts on your top females, consider the following:

  • Monitor stature and body condition: Underdeveloped and overconditioned heifers are put at risk for stillbirths. Work with your nutritionist to ensure your heifers receive a proper diet.
  • Calve heifers at the appropriate age and weight: Every month first calving is delayed beyond 22 months costs producers $100 per heifer, per month, primarily because of lost milk production opportunity and additional raising costs.4 A synchronization program can result in more efficient breeding, saving time and your bottom line.  
  • Use genomics to improve herd genetics and chances of a successful live calf: Genetic evaluations for sire stillbirth rate (SSB) and daughter stillbirth rate (DSB) with CLARIFIDE® can help identify mating sires and females with the ability to produce more live calves. This can help lower the DSB on your dairy. Animals with a higher DSB value (e.g., 10% or greater) indicate a female that has a higher chance of delivering a stillborn calf at birth. A lower value for DSB (e.g., 6%) would indicate a female that has a lower chance of having a stillborn calf.


Source: Herd data on file, Zoetis Inc.; n = 4110


If your reproduction program includes embryo transfer or in vitro fertilization, reliable DSB evaluations can help more accurately determine which recipients (particularly heifers) should be used to carry high-genetic-value embryos. To make both high-genetic progress and achieve a higher likelihood of live calves at birth, when selecting potential recipients, choose low-ranking animals for Net Merit (NM$) that also have an average or lower DSB (more desirable)for their genomic values. This can result in more live calves with greater genetic potential.

Having more live calves provides the opportunity to gain more genetically desirable heifers that are likely to contribute to genetic progress for many more generations to come. More live calves also gives herd owners the ability to be more choosy in who they select to invest in as their next generation of replacement heifers. This will translate into more profitable cows for your herd.

Work with your veterinarian to review your heifer management program and learn how genetics can help progress the health and future productivity of your herd.


1 Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory. Genetic Evaluation of Stillbirth. Available at: Published December 26, 2006. Accessed July 6, 2015.

2 Meyer CL, Berger PJ, Koehler KJ, Thompson JR, Sattler CG. Phenotypic trends in incidence of stillbirth for Holsteins in the United States. J Dairy Sci. 2001;84(2):515-523.

3 Van Der Fels-Klerx HJ, Martin SW, Nielen M, Huirne RBM. Effects on productivity and risk factors of bovine respiratory disease in dairy heifers; a review for the Netherlands. Neth J Agr Sci. 2002;50(1):27-45.

4 Lormore MJ. The case for a quality dairy replacement program. Proceedings. NRAES Dairy Calves and Heifers: Integrating Biology and Management Conference, 2005.




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