Accurate preg-testing vital breeder management tool

Beef Central, 26/07/2022

Sandi Jephcott

Well-known Queensland cattle vet Dr Sandi Jephcott offers an opinion about the value of PREGCHECK-accredited practitioners, when preg testing  




ANNUAL pregnancy testing of all breeders – not just non-lactating cows – is a vital management tool to improve herd productivity and profitability.

The application of this procedure will vary slightly depending on whether the bulls are only with the breeders for a controlled joining period of 42 days (two cycles), 65 days (three cycles) or the traditional three months, or continuous joining is applied (more common in extensive herds in northern Australia).

Bulls can remain all year in a controlled joining situation if start and end dates of the controlled joining are noted, and breeders are pregnancy-tested six weeks after the end date and all empty cows are identified to be culled.

It is also vital that all non-lactating cows at branding, particularly first-calf cows, are identified and culled, as these cows have lost their calf, mostly through disease or poor mothering. And it is highly repeatable, meaning these cows are likely to lose their calf in subsequent pregnancies.

Foetal ageing and removal of empty cows at pregnancy test and removal of cows that have lost a calf at branding:

  • improves the genetic fertility of the herd
  • retains only productive cows in the herd so stocking rate is matched to carrying capacity – particularly in dry times but even in good years it may allow breeders to retain more heifers or trade cattle
  • minimises disease
  • foetal ageing will identify the conception pattern of the herd which, with further testing, can identify the negative impact of disease, bull break-down or nutritional variation in the pasture
  • foetal ageing and therefore predominant calving periods will also allow owners to know at what time they should monitor the calving herd, particularly heifers, for dystocia, predation and mismothering
  • knowledge of calving periods allows owners to plan branding which should be when the youngest calf is three months of age. Extensive research has shown that mustering cows and calves within two months of calving will lead to a 10pc increase in calf loss.

In recent years there has been a large increase in the use of ultrasound for pregnancy testing cows.

Many people buying this tool have limited training and no knowledge of manual pregnancy testing by hand.

Many people buying ultrasounds with limited training set themselves up as ‘expert’ pregnancy testers and charge $3/cow for producer clients that hire them to pregnancy test their herd. These ‘experts’ frequently mis-diagnose pregnancy status so, contrary to the client’s requirement, pregnant cows are sent to slaughter and empty cows are retained.

The gold standard for pregnancy testing accreditation schemes is the Australian Cattle Veterinarian (ACV) PREGCHECK scheme, previously called National Cattle Pregnancy Diagnosis (NCPD).

PREGCHECK is a nationally-recognised system of coloured tail tags showing pregnancy status of cattle, predominantly red tag indicating pregnancy of greater than four months, blue tag indicating less than four months and green and white tag not detectably pregnant.

The PREGCHECK scheme seeks to promote excellence in cattle pregnancy testing skills, by way of peer-based assessment and the provision of educational material.

For a person to become an accredited manual PREGCHECK veterinarian, they must keep a log book as evidence that they have pregnancy tested at least 2000 head of cattle. Once they have achieved this, they will be tested by an ACV recognised PREGCHECK examiner.

If they pass, they are given a PREGCHECK number that will appear on their tags and they can record their number on the accompanying form when cattle are sold by a client.

Further, to be accredited as an ultrasound PREGCHECK veterinarian, the practitioner must first complete the above requirements for manual pregnancy testing then obtain another log back and record ultrasound pregnancy testing of a further 2000 head. Once this has been achieved, they will be tested by an ACV approved examiner and if they pass, they will get a number and be able to purchase tail tags.

If an ACV accredited ultrasound PREGCHECK vet scans a cow and it appears empty, they must manually check this diagnosis, as an ultrasound scan can only pick up a pregnant uterus when it is within the pelvic cavity which usually only occurs when less than four months pregnant.

Between five and seven months pregnant, the foetus is consistently at the bottom of the abdominal cavity so cannot be detected by an ultrasound.

So this is when non-veterinarian ultrasound pregnancy testers, that have no training in manual pregnancy testing, call a pregnant cow empty and cause a highly productive cow to be sent to slaughter.

The landmark for manual pregnancy testing is the cervix and many of these non-accredited ‘expert’ pregnancy testers do not even know what a cervix is.

Further to this misleading and absolutely incorrect use of an ultrasound, many pregnancy testing schools will give attendees a certificate indicating they are qualified to pregnancy test sale cattle.

Many of these schools have up to 15 attendees and only one crush to restrain the cow, so over the three days of the school, each participant will receive a theory lecture and only pregnancy test less than 20 cows (sometimes less than ten).

This is a long way from the 2000 required under the PREGCHECK standard.

Cattle are biological, not machines, so the pregnant uterus will vary in each cow at similar gestation periods, hence PRGCHECK requests log book evidence of pregnancy testing at least 2000 cows before a person can be presented to an examiner.

Pregnancy testing is no longer an act of veterinary science in Queensland, and there are some very good non-veterinarian pregnancy testers.

But due to no regulations or accreditation schemes, it is a real case of ‘buyer beware’, as there are some ‘sharks’ out there with very limited experience just trying to make money off producers.

Some highly inexperienced ultrasound operators are also employed at feedlots, and feeder cattle suppliers to that feedlot may be docked for a pregnancy that does not exist.

Possible solutions include getting feedback from the meatworks about the number of pregnant cows present in the supposed empties sent down, and if selling heifers or cows to a feedlot, get them pregnancy tested by a veterinarian so they arrive with a vet certificate.





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  1. George Scott, 31/07/2022

    Plenty of respect for Sandi but she has a lot wrong here. Plenty of ‘expert’ practitioners, vets included, get plenty wrong, whether manually palpating or using ultrasounds, and I have known Sandi to get plenty wrong herself. How experienced your practitioner is means a lot more than how they do it.
    Her comment that “an ultrasound scan can only pick up a pregnant uterus when it is within the pelvic cavity” is just completely incorrect. Experienced ultrasound practitioners have no issue attaining images that they can measure at any stage, and can as accurately – if not more accurately – age the foetus as a manual palpator.
    That said I agree with Sandi that manual palpating skills prior to ultrasound training would be beneficial.
    Finally the animal welfare aspect sees the ultrasound win hands down.

    • Dr+Sandra+Jephcott, 02/08/2022

      George Scott, I am disappointed but not surprised that you have a go at me. We were working together when my experience is not as good s it is now. urrently I have pregnancy tested more than 1.5 milllion head. I agree about the experience but you also have it wrong, once the pregnancy is > 4 months, sometimes in the 5 – 7 month gestation ypu can scan it if the calf is ‘up’ but definately not 100% of the time so when it is not ‘up’ it is scanned empty & you have to put your hand in to diagnise pregnancy. Regarding animal welfare, again it depends on the operator. Inexperience people using a scanner can penetrate the rectum. In the > 1,5 million head I have manually pregnancy tested I have penetrated the rectum once.

  2. John (curly) Firman, 31/07/2022

    I have been preg testing and spaying in northern Australia for 25 years
    I started using ultrasound
    (Repro scan) 4 years ago
    I disagree with all the comments
    In the first 3/4 months I can see all of the calf on my monitor and 5/6/7/8 months I can age looking at eye socket head and trunk diameters
    In my years before ultrasound heavy pregnancy’s 6 months plus is just by feel and a lot of guess work manually
    But the best thing with ultrasound is being able to pick up very early pregnancies without manual palpation which I know there are a lot of rough people vets included that will cause abortions
    I have trained many people up here now and they have all picked it up well
    It is a lot easier to learn than manual as you are just looking at a screen
    And the more you do the easier it is to read and pick up all the images of parts of the calf
    And finally if I were a cow I know what I would rather have up my backside

    • Dr+Sandra+Jephcott, 02/08/2022

      John, You are speaking from 25 years experience whixh is a lot different to the people I am referring to which have scannned or pregnancy tested <20 in a school. If you have done spaying as well as scanning you would have manual skills. The animal welfare / abortion referral absolutely depends on the operator. As a woman with small hands I do not have any of those problems. All this referral to abortions – how do you definately know it was caused by the operator and not by disease or anatomical defect of the cow.

  3. Anthea Henwood, 27/07/2022

    When you have enough vets to travel to NT to preg test let me know. In the perfect world yes you are spot on in everything you say. But there’s not enough of you (vets). We cannot hold up cows for weeks waiting for the perfect preg tester. My experience has been that mortality rates from vets spaying are up to 9%. Compared to non vets 0.5% to 1%. No vets can web cows. Spaying older cows has higher mortality rates and is border line whether it meets animal welfare standards. Webbing is consistently under 1% mortality and much kinder on older cows over 6 years old aside from obvious advantages of retaining calf.
    Accuracy in preg testing is only possible using a scanner and by measuring set parameters early in pregnancy. Same as humans.

    • Dr+Sandra+Jephcott, 02/08/2022

      Yes, shortage of rural vets is definitel a problem. I was not trying to put vets on a [edestal, just saying that pregnvancy testers charging a feed need more training.

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