Artificial insemination (AI) is one of the most effective tools available to enhance the productivity and profitability of beef cattle production systems. Even though this tool has been commercially available for more than 65 years, it is still dramatically underused in today's beef herds. Less than 5 percent of the nation's beef cows are bred using AI, with the majority of these breedings taking place in the seedstock and club calf sectors.
AI is not just for purebred breeders, but has applications at the commercial level, as well. The advantages of using AI are numerous and well documented. Some of them include:
- the ability to use sires of superior genetic merit;
- rapid improvement in traits important to an operation;
- the ability to mate specific sires to individual cows;
- elimination of separate breeding pastures;
- elimination or reduction of disease transmission from cow to cow;
- increased genetic merit of retained replacement heifers; and
- when combined with estrous synchronization, a shorter calving season can be achieved, resulting in a more consistent, uniform calf crop.
For the commercial cattleman, this could mean increased weaning weights, improved post-weaning performance, enhanced carcass value and more productive replacement heifers.
The usual arguments against AI programs are lack of time, additional labor and the cost of implementing a program. AI programs do require more intensive management of the herd. To be successful, a producer must have a sound nutrition program that keeps the cattle in good condition, an efficient record-keeping system, an effective herd health program, adequate working facilities, accurate estrus detection and a well-trained AI technician. The primary reason for undesirable results with an AI program is poor management in one or more of these areas.
In the past, the greatest demand on time and labor came from proper estrus or "heat" detection. Recent research in reproductive physiology has improved and refined estrous synchronization systems, making them more feasible for beef producers. Today, there is technology available that allows producers to set the time and date they want to inseminate their cows. Several estrous synchronization programs allow producers to successfully inseminate cows at a predetermined, fixed time, resulting in pregnancy rates similar to those achieved with estrus detection.
The cost of implementing an AI program can be variable, depending on the method of estrous synchronization used, cost of semen and whether an AI technician is hired or the producer performs the inseminations. A couple of recent economic studies have indicated that several estrous synchronization/AI programs cost less than natural service and several others have costs that are only marginally higher than natural service. In addition, the model used to evaluate these programs did not include the added value of AI-sired replacement heifers, which will increase the overall productivity and quality of the cow herd over time.
If you are ready to take the next step in improving the quality of your herd or simply want to reduce the number of bulls needed or eliminate bulls altogether, I strongly encourage you to consider implementing an AI program in your herd. There is still time to attend an AI school and get prepared for the upcoming breeding season. If you would like more information on AI, estrous synchronization or a list of upcoming AI schools, feel free to contact me or another Noble livestock specialist.