The benefits of artificial insemination (AI) are well documented. By employing herd bulls that remain anonymous to the cows that are being bred, producers should be able to make genetic progress more rapidly.
AI has been used as a tool for herd improvement throughout the last three decades. Research, which focused on refining the process in which the sperm cells were frozen, semen handling, equipment and technique, has made AI available to a wide range of cattlemen looking to add value to the calf crop.
“The main reason I went to AI school was because the gentleman I had breeding my cows was retiring and there weren't any reliable technicians in the area at the time. I knew I had to keep using the best bulls that were available to me so I learned how to AI,” says Brian Meyers, Farmington, Missouri.
“We were raising purebred cattle and my dad had been to AI school, but he worked off the farm. I wanted to learn so we could get the benefits of a solid AI program,” says Eric Martin, Golden Image Partnership, Ford, Kansas.
Top herd bulls often bring hefty prices at the end of the day. This makes it hard for most breeders to unload the bull at the home place for a formal courtship to the cows he will be mated to later in the season. However, a nominal investment in a semen tank filled with the breeds most proven or “en vogue” sires could lead to a better portfolio than a broker can put together on the New York Stock Exchange.
“To get started with AI, the school will cost about $600. An AI kit and a semen tank will run about $800 to $900. Add semen and basic supply costs and it is well worth the initial investment,” says Carl Rugg, Bovine Elite Inc., College Station, Texas. Bovine Elite handles both semen sales and puts on AI clinics.
With the way the cow/calf business is structured today, off the farm commitments take up a lot of a producer's time and AI Clinics sometimes fall during the busiest times of the year. Some producers feel a little apprehension when it is time to learn a new task, even though it should help improve the bottom line.
“We limit our school to four days and producers can sign up by phone or on the web. Our class has limited space so we require a deposit and it is first come first serve,” Rugg says. “We try to make it real easy for producers to get involved in the program because the biggest problem they have is finding the time to do it.”
Programs that teach the AI to producers give each participant instruction on proper technique. Experience gained during the short period will also help refine management practices that are conducive to AI.
“We teach the basics during the four days a student is here. Once producers get into the program they learn a lot more than just AI,” Rugg says. “We give them a quick overview on how to manage cattle to be more successful with their AI programs.”
AI schools could be compared to mini camps or spring training. The basic information on technique is passed on to producers. The difference between a mediocre technician and a good one is the amount of effort put into getting better.
“Our students get into 70 cows during the afternoon labs, but the more practice you get the better a person gets at AI,” Rugg says. “Every cow is different. We give them things to look for to get to the insemination point, but the most successful students start getting into cows right away after they have completed our class.”
“For me, at first, I really didn't understand what I was trying to find in the cow. Once I started finding the cervix and passing the rod, I started to gain confidence and get a feel for what I was doing,” Martin says. “It is real important to get into some cows right away.”
Acceptable conception rates are like learning to walk before you run. It takes time to improve technique, but also to get the management practices to fit the new breeding system. Skills like heat detection and nutritional management have to be refined to make AI successful.
“Fifty percent conception is very acceptable for the first breeding season. Producers will get better over time,” Rugg says. “Part of improving conception rates will be removing the fertility problems in the cow herd. With increased emphasis placed on cows that will AI, fertility will improve.”
“When I got started I was just hoping to get half the cows bred. Now I get about 66 percent on the first heat cycle and the ones that will settle AI, bred in two heat cycles,” Martin says. “I synchronize the cows I want to breed, but I don't time breed anything. I want to see a cow in heat before I spend the time and money to breed her.”
“Synchronization is a good tool for us because I live off the farm. We line up our cows to come in heat on the weekends so we can properly detect heats and get them inseminated at the right time,” Meyers says. “The most critical thing is catching them in a good standing heat.”
“Timing is everything. Good heat detection translates into high conception rates,” says Corey Rupple, Keenesburg, Colo.
Practices that help cattlemen become better managers are always changing. A few veterans of the AI game can remember the ampules of semen thawed in an ice bath and syringes at the end of the AI rod. For most, with less experience, a straw of semen has been the correct terminology for most of the last two decades and it comes with its own specific handling instructions.
“We know the best way to thaw a straw of semen is in 95 degrees Farenheit for 30 seconds. Some technicians start experimenting and don't stick to technique. That's when they get into trouble,” Rugg says. “The basic techniques and equipment have not changed in quite a while, but we do offer a refresher course for producers who have been through our program.”
“I recommend taking a refresher course. I just took one, even though I was comfortable with my technique,” Martin says. “I could concentrate on handling semen and the other critical things that will hopefully improve conception rates.”
Some breeders, even though they have been through an AI school, will rely on an experienced technician to help breed the cow herd because they want to keep high conception rates.
“I went to AI school, but I still use a technician for a variety of reasons,” Rupple says. “Most importantly, what it costs me for his services, I can make up for with increased conception rates.”
Experienced technicians provide valuable services to cattlemen throughout the country. In certain areas, it is practical to take advantage of the knowledge and other benefits they provide.
“Since I know how to AI, it works really well if my technician can't get here at the right time to breed a cow. I use them when I am breeding a big bunch of cows because they are a lot faster. The main reason I went to AI school was to breed the cows the second time,” Rupple says. “I do the heat checking and call them when I need them. It is also one less headache because they come prepared. I don't have to worry about supplies and semen.”
Once the cow herd has been put through the paces and cattle are made ready for the AI program from a reproductive standpoint, benefits should be seen with each generation. These advantages could be different for each producer. To some more uniformity is a goal. For others, particularly in purebred herds, that straw of semen translates into extra dollars when the sire's name appears on the registration paper.
“The more producers use AI, they will shorten calving season, shorten the breeding season and have a more uniform calf crop,” Rugg says. “They will know to breed the heifers to calve two to three weeks before the main cow herd so they can get them bred back to calve the next year with the older cows.”
“We are small breeders. We have to have AI sired calves from a marketing standpoint,” Meyers says. “It is a lot easier for us to sell AI genetics and I think that is why we have been able to sell a couple in the more prestigious sales.”
“My AI program works well for me,” Rupple says. “I get a lot of AI calves which adds a premium to my calf crop when I sell them.”
A successful AI program entails many factors. Almost everything done in the management program, from health to nutrition to checking the pastures twice a day impacts conception rates. If all these components are held in check it could make the technician look like a hero.
Ultimately, the success rate will be determined by how level the playing field gets because producers are utilizing resources in a more profitable manner. AI is one of the least risk highest reward concepts in the business, but it could turn into high risk if the proper steps are not taken.
“If you are going to synchronize a bunch of cows make sure you are prepared to breed them,” Martin says. “It doesn't do any good to AI if you run out of something when you are right in the middle of breeding the cows. Make sure you have plenty of supplies and order semen early so the bull you want to breed to is in the tank.”
“With a technician, the earlier in the year you contact him the better of you are,” Rupple says. “He will help you plan synchronization dates by his available time or you can schedule the preferred date.”
“No matter how good of technician you are, you have to get out in those cows and make sure they are cycling. Especially if you are going to synchronize them,” Rugg says. “People who aren't successful at AI usually have a management problem. When you are having a problem, work to eliminate the things that could be causing it, this will allow producers to be more successful.”