With only 10% of beef herds in the U.S using artificial insemination, from time to time the discussion arises on whether it is worth doing on small beef farms. In some situations, this is an easy answer, while in other situations it is not so clear-cut.
Some herds are operated with the goal of producing superior offspring. Others are trying to get income from land not suitable for other purposes, and they want to do it with minimal labor. Both are worthy goals, but the use of AI only fits one of the two situations.
Why use artificial insemination?
There are many possible reasons to use AI, but here are three:
1. Genetic improvement. Whether you are raising purebred cattle and tracking expected progeny differences or raising show cattle and looking at phenotype, AI opens the door to using the top genetics in the country.
For $20 to $50 per straw, you can purchase semen on nearly any bull. You also have the option to purchase semen from a variety of sires to improve your genetic diversity. Can you afford more than one bull in a small herd? New sires are released every year, and on average, each generation is better than the previous generation. How often can you afford to replace your bull with a new model?
Finally, you have the option of sexed semen. Improvements continue to be made in sex-sorting semen. Current results are typically within 10% of conventional semen pregnancy rates.
2. Biosecurity. A bull brought into your herd has the potential to bring along diseases your herd may not have been exposed to in the past. A good vaccination program goes a long way in reducing these risks. There still is a concern of sexually transmitted diseases being transferred if the bull services other cattle through lease arrangements or weak fences.
3. Safety. No matter how calm a bull may seem, it is still a bull and should not be trusted. While beef bulls tend to be less dangerous than dairy bulls, there are still many people injured or killed by bulls each year.
Herd health first
Before implementing an AI breeding program, it is crucial your herd health and nutrition program are being taken care of.
If you do not have a vaccination program in place, consult with a veterinarian to develop a program that will work well for your farm. Breeding time is not the time to vaccinate. Vaccinations should be given five to six weeks before breeding. Vaccinating too near insemination time can result in reduced pregnancy rates.
Be sure your cows are receiving adequate nutrition. This involves testing the forage and monitoring body condition scores. Very thin cows with body condition scores of 4 or less are likely to have greatly reduced fertility.
Remember the nutrients a cow takes in first go to maintenance and second to growth. Next the nutrients are used for production, which in this case is milk. Finally, anything that is left can be used for reproduction. Too often, there may not be enough energy or protein left after maintenance, growth and production take their share, and reproduction suffers.
When it comes down to economics, there are many things to consider. If you are just looking at dollars spent, it is hard to continue to feed and care for a bull while adding the AI costs on top of the bull expenses.
Going 100% AI is possible, but takes dedication to details and a time commitment to heat detection and pregnancy checking. It is challenging to maintain a narrow calving window when a cleanup bull is not used, but it is possible.
A study reported by Les Anderson at the University of Kentucky looked at the dollar cost per pregnancy when using bulls purchased at various prices. A $3,000 bull used for 15 cows resulted in a cost of about $100 per calf, depending on many factors such as pregnancy rate. While this may not be exact today, it can provide a ballpark idea.
When it comes to costs for AI, many beef cattle are bred using an estrus synchronization program. I am including those costs for this discussion. With a cost of about $20 for synchronization, $20-$40 for semen and about $20 if you need to hire a technician, you are at about $60-$80 without adding in labor.
With a 60% pregnancy rate, you are at about $115 per pregnancy. There are also other costs to consider, such as owning a nitrogen tank and paying to have it filled about every eight weeks, which could amount to $300-$500 per year.
There is not one way to raise cattle that is right for all situations. If your goal is to maximize genetic improvement in your cattle, and you are willing to spend some time and invest in facilities, AI is a great place to start.
If you do decide to try AI, remember that impacts may take years to be observed. The generation interval on cattle is long, so you won’t see results immediately.
Kreager is the OSU Extension educator for AgNR in Licking County. He is also a member of the OSU Extension Beef Team that publishes the weekly Ohio Beef Cattle letter, which can be found at beef.osu.edu.