Environmental heat can reduce conception rates (the proportion of services that result in pregnancy) in lactating dairy cows. The study objectives were to identify periods of exposure relative to the service date in which environmental heat is most closely associated with conception rates, and to assess whether the total time cows are exposed to high environmental heat within each 24-h period is more closely associated with conception rates than is the maximum environmental heat for each 24-h period. A retrospective observational study was conducted in 25 predominantly Holstein-Friesian commercial dairy herds located in Australia. Associations between weather and conception rates were assessed using 16,878 services performed over a 21-mo period. Services were classified as successful based on rectal palpation. Two measures of heat load were defined for each 24-h period: the maximum temperature-humidity index (THI) for the period, and the number of hours in the 24-h period when the THI was >72. Conception rates were reduced when cows were exposed to a high heat load from the day of service to 6 d after service, and in wk -1. Heat loads in wk -3 to -5 were also associated with reduced conception rates. Thus, management interventions to ameliorate the effects of heat load on conception rates should be implemented at least 5 wk before anticipated service and should continue until at least 1 wk after service. High autocorrelations existed between successive daily values in both measures, and associations between day of heat load relative to service day and conception rates differed substantially when ridge regression was used to account for this autocorrelation. This indicates that when assessing the effects of heat load on conception rates, the autocorrelation in heat load between days should be accounted for in analyses. The results suggest that either weekly averages or totals summarizing the daily heat load are adequate to describe heat load when assessing effects on conception rates in lactating dairy cows.