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Artificial Insemination Adds Value to Cow Herd

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Due to the considerable herd expansion that has occurred over the last three years, forecasters predict that 2017 and 2018 cattle markets will be considerably lower than even the transition that took place during the latter half of 2016. Only time will tell, but cattle producers are pretty resilient, and most have seen this market transition before. A silver lining to keep in mind about this one is that we are transitioning from all-time record calf prices in 2014-2015. Hopefully, cow-calf producers took advantage of those market conditions to identify areas of opportunity to address as prices soften and are willing to implement measures that can either reduce costs or increase revenues in the event that we do need to buckle down due to choppy markets.

One such area that has potential to add value to a cow-calf operation is the implementation of an artificial insemination (AI) program. This topic is not a new one, but I find very few commercial producers, regardless of size, actually implement AI as a management tool to improve herd performance and revenue generation. The reasons are varied and in many instances ultimately appropriate. However, the sentiment of "I have never done it," or "It looks too hard," oftentimes rules the overall decision-making process and the potential benefits are left untapped.

Depending upon the individual situation, arguably the biggest benefit in utilizing AI is access to superior genetics as AI studs are selected. Electronic databases, available through many of the breeding services suppliers, can be easily sorted based upon a prioritized list of genetic traits that are specific to your operation. Oftentimes, this results in access to AI studs that wouldn't otherwise be available with greater genetic predictably than is available when purchasing younger, relatively unproven natural service sires.

artificial insemination

Doing so leads to another important potential benefit of AI, which is the possibility for the AI event to target specific traits in subsequent offspring such as replacement quality and/or carcass merit, and the cleanup event to target paternal endpoints such as weaning and/or yearling weight. The result will be heifer calves that are born early in the calving season and possess the maternal traits desirable to either go back in the herd or market as replacements as well as later born calves that possess the growth potential to overcome their lack of age and still wean at an acceptable weight.

Accompanying the AI program, consider whether to inseminate based upon standing heat or at a timed interval. The vast majority of commercial operations elect to implement a synchronization program and inseminate at a specified interval within the resulting heat cycle. Realistically, only expect around 50 percent conception from the timed AI event. But, by synchronizing you should get more females bred earlier during the cleanup period.

Depending upon the individual situation, arguably the biggest benefit in utilizing AI is access to superior genetics as AI studs are selected.

Keep in mind there are several different synchronization programs; they are specific to whether mature cows or heifers are the target animal and whether they are English or Brahman influenced. Implementing the appropriate estrus synchronization program and not synchronizing more animals than you can breed at any one interval are important points to learn from others' mistakes as opposed to making them yourself. An extremely helpful tool in implementing an AI program/protocol is the "Estrus Synchronization Planner" offered through Iowa State University.

Although there are other potential reasons (e.g., costs, labor availability, AI technician access, desire, etc.) that would yield AI infeasible, in my estimation there is really only one true deal breaker: if an individual operation doesn't have access to working facilities that are safe to both personnel and animals. AI technicians are similar to many veterinarians in that they can do a lot with very few resources in the form of fancy pens, yet if the basic functionality of your working pens is in question then definitely use the adequate number of bulls. It will make everybody happier, including the bulls.

Evan Whitley, Ph.D.
Former Cattle Systems Contract Research Manager