Miles and miles of circular crop fields were all that could be seen as we flew over the state of Nebraska. Now, I have traveled a couple of miles in my short lifetime, but generally my time has been spent inside conference centers. This trip was a little different. At 6:30 a.m., I boarded the Noble Research Institute airplane. Our destination: North Platte, Nebraska, corn and replacement heifer central. The initial part of the day we spent inside looking at various producers’ operations from a financial and management standpoint before we were able to get out and actually see the operations.
Intriguing enough, these producers were receiving approximately $200 bonus for heifers that were artificially inseminated (A.I.). Even more intriguing is that A.I., as a part of the whole picture, costs very little. On average, it consumed only 4 percent of the total animal input cost. This includes all synchronization medication, management and heat detection labor, and A.I. technician fees, making the cost-per-pregnancy almost $75.
Now, I am sure you are wondering how this compares to natural service? Well, I am enthralled to tell you that for these producers, A.I. cost was around $5 less per head bred than natural service. How can this be? The answer is simple: it costs a pretty penny to own and maintain highly productive bulls. Because fertility decreases after 6 years of age, bulls are generally replaced around every two to four years. On top of that, the current market has 2-year-old bulls running anywhere from $2,000 to $8,000-plus, depending on quality and location. When you add in the suggested bull power of 20 to 40 cows per bull, you can calculate that just the initial bull cost is steep without even adding in maintenance cost over his production period. When you think about it in these terms, it’s easy to see why A.I. is an excellent alternative route for producers.
Buckboard Ranch in the Nebraska Sandhills, a prime example of cattle scattered among “nothingness.”
Although I can appreciate the view of cattle scattered among the nothingness of the Nebraska Sandhills, what I found most fascinating was our visit to Heartland Cattle Company in McCook, Nebraska. Patsy Houghton, Ph.D., has developed one of the most efficient operations around. It achieves a 90-plus percent conception rate. People from states as far away as Texas send their heifers to Heartland for a six month stay in a dry lot facility where Houghton and her hands will pre-condition, cull and breed heifers before returning them to their home prior to calving season.
So what’s the secret to Houghton’s efficiency? Although estrus synchronization techniques are proven very effective, anyone who has ever done any synchronized breeding understands that females won’t always come in exactly seven days after removal of the estrus suppressor, and this is where Houghton stands out. While Houghton has peak days where the majority of the heifers are expected to come in, unlike most operations, she doesn’t just fix-time breed; she has trained her hands to be exceptional at heat detection. These hands ride pens daily to catch the females during standing heat and only then are the heifers bred. Though time and labor intensive, Houghton has found a system that works, and if ever given the opportunity, I would return to Heartland in a heartbeat.
As we boarded the airplane to head back to good ol’ Oklahoma, I couldn’t help but feel an overabundance of pride to be a part of an industry that is at the forefront of agriculture leading the way into the future.
Shiann Burns is a 2015 Lloyd Noble Scholar in Agriculture from Madill, Oklahoma. A fourth generation rancher, Burns grew up on a commercial cow-calf operation while managing her own purebred cattle and swine operation. She is a senior at Oklahoma State University, majoring in animal science.