Management protocol, at almost every operation, revolves around pre-conceived goals established by the firm's principals. Most scenarios come together like a recipe for fine cuisine, one mishap and a setback usually occurs. The 21st Century beef industry offers little room for error; however, quick-thinking operations that can adapt and adjust usually find profits where other outfits declare a loss.
Many factors influence the management scheme. In some areas, few managers are in control of their own destiny. Genetic selection is one field where operator's can have a firm hold on all the options available. Careful pre-planning will ultimately provide a map to success. Artificial insemination (AI) is often an under utilized tool available to cattlemen. Pre-conceived notions can undermine the potential for AI to add genetic improvement to the operation.
“One of the biggest challenges we face is producers aren't willing to take advantage of a management tool to help improve genetics. Artificial insemination provides tremendous value through proven genetics,” says Stan Lock, Area Sales Manager for Genex.
“Define your objectives. There is a lot of value across breeds and within breeds for producers willing to take advantage of what AI brings,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Extension Livestock Specialist, Corpus Christi, Texas.
With enough leeway the process is simple to get started. AI schools are available across the country and are very affordable for most producers. Producers who are uncomfortable learning the technique most generally employ a technician. Lead time will allow the best scenario to play out.
“Producers who want to AI their own cows can purchase an AI kit with all the necessary supplies and have it delivered to their ranch. Storage tanks and other materials can usually be purchased from reputable AI studs or service providers,” Lock says. “If you make your arrangements early and do not want to invest in semen storage, most technicians can come equipped with semen and supplies.”
“Purchase an AI kit at least 30 days out. A semen tank will also take 30 days to be shipped to your location, unless you go directly to the supplier,” Paschal says. “The kit will cost around $250, tanks vary depending on size. Order all your equipment from a reputable source ahead of time.”
Most changes to management often involve hours of careful research and planning to make the best decision for the firm. AI is no different. Various elements that will make it a profitable experience require time to put into place.
“Producers need to start thinking about AI as far out as possible. I like to tell my clients to start planning for next year's calf crop and decide what works for them,” Paschal says. “Usually 60 to 90 days prior to breeding the cow herd. It takes time to order supplies and get the semen on hand to get the job done.”
“I start thinking about my AI program when this year's calf crop hits the ground. I like to breed my cows 50 to 60 days after they calve depending on what kind of shape they are in. This also allows me to evaluate the matings to see if I need to make a change in sire selection,” says Rocky Carrillo, Carillo Brothers Beefmaster, Realitos, Texas.
Once a producer decides AI can be a useful tool, several checklist items must be accounted for to ensure success. Just like a coach writing the game plan, a producer must prepare his herd to accomplish the task at hand.
“Herd health and nutrition are pre-cursors for a successful AI program. Planning in advance will allow a cattleman to prepare his herd for one of the many different breeding scenarios,” Lock says. “Producers need to decide if they are going to breed cattle on natural heats or use a synchronization program.”
“Producers have to stack the odds in their favor to be successful. The best way to do this is to make sure your cows are in good shape and are 45 to 60 days post partum,” Paschal says. “I like to see a Body Condition Score of at least 5, if not 6. Thin cows don't work in an AI program because it is a nightmare trying to get them bred.”
When the cow herd has been prepared and the decision has been made to utilize AI, producers need to fine tune the process. Employing an AI technician or consultant should increase conception rates, particularly for first time users of AI.
“The more lead time you give a technician, usually the better success rate you will have getting cows bred,” Paschal. “The person helping you with the AI program wants to do a good job. Depending on the situation, making a call 30 days prior will get you on the books. Other times more advance notice allows for further consultation.”
“It is best to call your technician or AI sales rep 60 days ahead of time to make accurate plans,” Lock says. “This will give you time to make sure you have enough supplies and semen. Breeding virgin heifers is usually a good place to start an AI program. They are easier to handle and there are a lot of proven calving ease sires available.”
“Once I know how many cows I am going to breed, I call my technician 30 days in advance,” Carillo says. “At this time, I will inventory supplies to see what I need to get ordered. If you want to have your calf crop grouped in a certain time frame, not having the proper supplies will delay breeding and lengthen your calving season. It is a lot easier to evaluate the calf crop when they are tightly grouped.”
Several things come to the forefront when a producer decides to use AI. Sire selection and what method the producer will use to get the cows to cycle are at the top of the list. Deciding these two factors will go a long way to determining the supplies and amount of semen needed.
“It is important to pre-plan because sometimes the sire you select isn't available due to demand. Select the sire based on the goal of the operation and know when you need to take possession of that semen,” Lock says. “I recommend having extra semen and supplies on hand. Properly stored semen and supplies can be used the next breeding season.”
“I recommend two units of semen per cow, if we plan to breed a second time. The mistake some first time purebred breeders make is they go to extremes when purchasing semen based on price. There are a lot of good bulls available that are moderately priced. Sometimes there is a lot of value in the high priced semen, other times it is based purely on supply and demand,” Paschal says. “Commercial producers are looking at a one time deal. One unit of semen per cow and one round of supplies usually will be adequate to get the job done.”
“After I evaluate my calf crop, there are many factors I use to determine sire selection. I look at Expected Progeny Differences and try to see calves out of different sires. I can more accurately identify potential AI sires at this time,” Carrillo says. “I have to make sure the semen is available, it's reasonably priced and it can be shipped to me in time for breeding season.”
Synchronization programs are designed to fit about any program. Producers must decide which protocol fits their operation, then plan to purchase what they need.
“Most synchronization protocols are listed in major AI books. Today, synchronization programs offer producers many options with a variety of associated costs. Choose one that will work for your operation,” Lock says. “There are producers who have a lot of success breeding cows themselves on natural heats. Other operations have limited time. A synchronization program helps schedule breeding to fit a specific time frame. Order your supplies based on need and some of the synchronization drugs are prescription so be sure to consult your vet during the planning process.”
“Any of the land grant university web sites do a good job of explaining the synchronization protocols. Each synchronization program gets a little more involved from a labor, cost and management perspective,” Paschal says. “Different programs work better for heifers than they do cows. Others are specifically designed for cows. Decide which program fits your budget. Some cost a little more and value could be different depending on how many you want to breed. Even though the program only costs five to seven dollars more per head, this could mean a significant increase if you're breeding 100 head.”
This specialized management tool requires more planning than just deciding herd sires and synchronization method. Pre-planning and consulting an AI technician will help producers avoid pitfalls that could lead to disaster.
“Facilities play an important role in the success rate of an AI program,” Paschal says. “Cows have to be run through the chute three or four times in some cases. Good facilities that limit stress are a must. Less stress on the animal will improve conception rates. When you have cow in the chute, only do the things that pertain to the AI program.”
“Facilities are very important to make the program run smoothly. Producers need to have facilities to handle what they are breeding. Adequate facilities are different for breeding cows (pairs) or virgin heifers,” Lock says. “Pre-planning will allow you to line up extra labor if needed. Review your facilities with your AI rep to make sure they are adequate. We offer portable breeding sheds for producers who do not have proper facilities. Advance notice will make sure these are available on the day you breed your cows. We also advise clients to perform multiple management tasks at least 30 days prior to breeding because it will affect conception rates.”
Along with the normal supplies to get the cows synchronized and bred, most companies will offer other products that will make heat detection easier. Proper heat detection only increases chances to reach the desired end result.
“Utilize the heat detection products that are available. They are very effective, whether a patch or tail paint,” Lock says. “This is a visual aid that will help identify more cows that are in heat and reduce the time involved with heat detection.”
For most, cost and the time involved are major factors why producers decide not to use this technology. Careful cost analysis will give producers an idea of the benefits received when employing this tool for genetic improvement.
“In an AI program, 80 to 85 percent will respond and cycle, the other 15 to 20 percent won't respond to synchronization. Depending on the program, we'll get 46 to 48 percent conception rates,” Paschal says. “A good rule of thumb is every calf that hits the ground bears the cost of two inseminations. If that cost is $75 dollars per head (semen and synchronization included) then $150 of extra value has to be achieved by each calf. If it costs $1,000 to go out and buy cattle to enter the herd, that $150 per calf looks cheap. Tailor the program to meet your financial needs.”
“AI allows the small breeder to compete in a cost-effective manner,” Carrillo says. “I can take advantage of the advertising the large breeder did on his bull and have a marketable product. I can make genetic improvement at a more rapid pace by using proven sires.”
New tactics in management allow each outfit to overcome adversity caused by the ever-changing industry. A successful AI program will ultimately lead to better genetics in the cow herd, a more marketable product and a more uniform calf crop.
Pre-planning is a must for any operation looking to use AI for the next calf crop. Success depends on utilizing all resources available to “dot the I's and cross the T's.” Specific attention to detail should enhance profits and take the operation one step closer to reaching its pre-conceived goals.
“People usually fall down in two areas in an AI program,” Paschal says. “What they do post partum getting cows in shape and heat detection. The actual insemination process is relatively easy compared to what producers have to do before and after they decide to AI.”
“The cost of AI and AI school are both relatively inexpensive. Anyone can take advantage of AI. Even for a small breeder who only has 30 head. There is semen available for $20 per unit so you spend $600 for your herd bull that year and don't have all the costs associated with owning one,” Carrillo says. “With the genetics that are available, you are way ahead. For me, a small breeder, AI is the greatest thing since sliced bred. It allows me to compete with larger breeders in an affordable manner.
“If things don't go well, producers will be discouraged and it's hard for them to try AI again,” Lock says. “Conception rate is tied closely to heat detection and the number of cows that come into estrus. The more cows we can get to come into estrus, the better conception rates we'll have.”