Is AI Worth the Effort?

By: John F. Grimes, OSU Extension Beef Coordinator (originally published in the Ohio Farmer on-line)

Artificial insemination (A.I.) in beef cattle is not a new technology as it has been available to producers for several decades. Nearly every cow-calf producer in this country has some degree of awareness of this management practice. While there is a relatively high degree of awareness amongst producers of A.I., misconceptions still exist about the value of this useful tool.

The use of artificial insemination offers several obvious advantages over natural service sires. Some of these advantages include:

  • The availability of genetically superior sires that can create rapid genetic improvement.
  • Facilitates targeted matings and crossbred mating programs.
  • Reduces the number of bulls needed during a breeding season.
  • Helps produce value-added calves for targeted markets.
  • The availability of proven calving ease sires for use in replacement heifer programs.
  • Improvements in sexed-semen technology allows the producer to make more gender specific matings.

Surveys indicate that approximately 10% of beef females are mated through A.I. every year. A large percentage of these females bred artificially can be found in seedstock operations and commercial replacement heifer programs. This relatively low adoption rate can be partially explained through established perceptions that A.I. is too expensive, labor intensive, and difficult to achieve comparable pregnancy rates to using natural service sires.

Labor requirements have traditionally been identified as a key limiting factor to the adoption of A.I. Heat detection has always been an important part of a successful A.I. program. The time necessary for heat detection has been an obstacle for cow-calf operations that are a part of a larger farming operation or where the owner also works off the farm. University researchers and A.I. companies have worked hard to develop synchronization programs to reduce the labor requirements associated with A.I. These synchronization programs have been refined to where we can effectively utilize fixed-time A.I. and consistently achieve 50% – 65% conception rates without heat detection. The success of fixed-time synchronization programs makes artificial insemination a viable management choice for any commercial or seedstock cow-calf operation.

Artificial insemination combined with estrous synchronization offers significant economic and management advantages for the producer. A.I. combined with estrous synchronization will allow for higher service rates in the first week of the breeding season compared to natural service scenarios. Higher service rates with typical conception rates will result in a larger percentage of the calf crop born earlier in the calving season through A.I. More cows calving earlier in the calving season will create a more uniform calf crop as a result of producing older and heavier calves at weaning. Estrous synchronization programs can stimulate anestrous females into cycling. Higher pregnancy rates earlier in the breeding season can help the producer shorten the length of the calving season, which can simplify overall herd management.

There have been several studies that have analyzed the true costs of A.I. compared to natural service. The true costs of natural service must include the purchase price of the bull and annual maintenance costs over his lifetime minus his salvage value. This figure must be divided by the total number of females bred to produce an annual cost per female. This cost per female will increase if the female fails to wean a calf or the bull is lost or culled prematurely. Depending on the protocol employed, most A.I. programs will compare favorably from a cost standpoint to natural service.

Today’s competitive beef economy presents many opportunities for the beef producer. Regardless if the goal is to produce feeder calves, retain ownership through the finishing phase, or raise purebred or commercial seedstock, the producer must strive to produce a high quality animal with the genetics to meet the demands of their targeted customers. The use of A.I. allows the producer to use the best beef genetics available when compared to the typical natural service sire.

Ultimately, the decision as to whether or not to implement artificial insemination comes down to the goals you have established for your breeding program. A beef cow-calf producer has several choices available when selecting sires to be used in the breeding herd. Bull studs devote significant amounts of resources to finding a wide variety of top quality sires to make available to cattlemen. Many seedstock producers utilize top genetics to produce quality herd bulls for the commercial sector. The decision a producer must make is if A.I. is worth the extra effort to potentially use highly proven, superior genetics compared to using sons of highly proven, superior sires.

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