A.I. IS A COST EFFECTIVE MEANS OF GENETIC IMPROVEMENT

by: Clifford Mitchell

The statement “I have a ranch to run,” has rarely had as diverse of a meaning as it does today. These successful businessmen probably would give Donald Trump a run for his money (if they had his resources). Keeping track of all the daily activities leads to an organized operator looking to generate profit or cut expenses with every decision.

On the ranch, keeping the delicate balance of a profit loss statement or cash flow must correspond with making correct decisions from a genetic improvement standpoint. Genetically superior animals never go out of style. Many ranchers today manage data with a computer program or use the internet to communicate with customers and purchase goods or services. Advanced reproductive technology (ART), like artificial insemination, compared to some technology, has been around for a long time. Even though only a small percentage of cattlemen take advantage of AI, the ones who believe in it will tell you it is a great tool for genetic improvement.

“Only three to seven percent of beef producers take advantage of AI. Most of them are probably purebred breeders. Most who aren't doing some use cost or level of management as an excuse not to AI,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Texas AgriLife Extension, Corpus Christi, Texas.

“I have been AIing cows since 1979 or '80. If I make the right mating decisions, it allows me to reach performance goals, tighten calving interval and produce cattle that have the body style and look that I want,” says Steve Emmons, Emmons Ranch, Fairfield, Texas.

“I can use the best bulls in the breed at a fraction of what it would cost to own them. There are a lot of really good bulls out there that money can't buy or if it did, I don't have enough of it. I can afford to buy a straw of semen on the better bulls in the breed based on whatever criteria I am selecting for,” says Davin Vaughn, Vaughn Family Farms, Mt. Vernon, Mo.

The “tools of the trade” baffle some cattlemen because they do not know where to start. Most will know what goal they are trying to reach, but cannot draw the map to get there. Defining the end-point could help producers decide what steps to take.

“Producers have to decide where they want to be and what they can market. If a producer sells all calves at weaning then select easy calving bulls with as much growth as you can get. If you want to keep some heifers, easy calving should still be on the list, but then moderate growth and look for some maternal. Selecting for high growth in this situation could eventually have a negative affect on mature cow size,” Paschal says. “No matter what the end product goal is anybody can synchronize and breed to average bulls, those days are over. AI allows you to select bulls that will add profitability. There is a lot of profit potential if you can market the end product correctly.”

“I don't think anything adds more value to your herd than the bull you breed to. A cow has one calf per year, she affects one percent of the calf crop,” Vaughn says. “That bull is going to positively or negatively affect at least 30 or 40 percent, maybe even 100 percent of the calf crop.”

Finding value in AI can come through many forms of genetic management. Creating marketable offspring through mating superior genetics is an obvious offshoot of AI.

“I have to take advantage of all the tools I can to add value to my calf crop. AI helps me increase value because I can use highly promoted bulls and people buy on known pedigree,” Emmons says. “Before synchronization, people had bad experiences because they didn't heat check properly or it was more work than initially thought. Heat synchronization programs are so good today anyone can AI.”

“If I own a really good bull, even if I use him twice a year, 80 calves would be the most I am going to get,” Vaughn says. “With AI and natural service I can breed every cow on the place to that bull if I want to. I like the consistency AI brings to the calf crop, especially, my terminal calves. If there's only a 25 pound difference in that load of calves, usually I am going to get paid a premium.”

“Even though AI is thought to be expensive, it allows producers to use a couple really good bulls and still sample another through AI,” Paschal says. “Most of the time a producer can afford only one really good bull. Look for AI sires that fit your program and will add profitability to their offspring. Stacking proven pedigrees is another way to create value.”

Sire selection is done in many ways. People look at the goals of the operation, while others look at the semen cost as a factor in which bulls they use. Proven bulls are often at the top of the list, but some producers will chance the “young guns” to help take the next step.

“AI is a relatively cheap way for producers to experiment with some new genetics. Many producers will see a young bull and like his performance and phenotype,” Paschal says. “It's worth trying this bull and once we get calves on the ground it will tell us how he's going to fit in our breeding program. A lot of these young bulls develop into really good sires and if you sample them, usually you have a leg up.”

“I like to use a proven bull with a lot of progeny. If I am going to sample a young bull his mother better be a really top cow,” Emmons says. “Sometimes when we mate an average cow with an average bull, we'll get a superior individual. I want to know as much about his mother that I can. If she's the kind of cow I like, I'll use him.”

Some outfits look to the technology to make large groups of closely related genetics. These cattle can not only increase value from potential customers, but also add consistency to the herd.

“You will have a more consistent cow herd if you create a herd of half and three quarter sisters. Once you create some consistency, it will create value,” Vaughn says. “You can also get really consistent carcass data with half and three quarter brothers. You have a more accurate comparison between contemporaries when cattle are closely related.”

“Closely related genetics adds tremendous value to my herd. Through the use of AI and embryo transfer, I can make some fast genetic improvement,” Emmons says. “If you want to make some progress breed 20 half or three quarter sisters and you'll get a really consistent calf crop. This is a big part of what I am trying to do and where we make a lot of improvement.”

Creating groups of closely related genetics could help fast track genetic improvement. AI also allows operations to create custom or specialized products for a certain purpose.

‘Sire groups will perform a certain way. We can create sire lines that emphasize particular traits, for instance a terminal group or maternal cattle,” Paschal says. “I am not sure sexed semen works for everybody due to extra the cost, but it has its place where producers know it adds value. In some cases a heifer is worth $500 more than her steer mate. I think it works well if you want to create a maternal line of genetics and females are important. If you're concentrating on carcass and retain those calves through the feedyard, there could be an opportunity. I think the jury is still out due to the extra costs.”

“Sexed semen allows producers to dictate the sex of the majority of his calf crop,” Emmons says. “Depending on how you market your calves, this could be a significant premium.”

“I use sexed semen in combination with in vitro fertilization (IVF). I can use some really high cost semen and keep my costs per live calf at a reasonable level,” Vaughn says. “It's worth it to me because I can get all heifer calves. I am trying to build my seedstock operation and I can do it with great females.”

A big debate among cattlemen is where the real dollars attached to the AI program are spent or made. Some feel the synchronization process is as much a part of the profit equation as producing genetically superior animals.

“I can calve in a tight time period. When I synchronize and AI all the females in a couple days, I can walk the bull out to clean up the following cycle,” Vaughn says. “I think it reduces labor costs in the long run. We can calve 170 cows in a week to 10 days rather than checking them for 60.”

“With the new protocols we can group cattle to calve in a short time frame. We don't have to check them for as long of duration,” Emmons says. “Before they came out with improved synchronization programs, AI was time consuming because to me heat detection is the most important part of an AI program.”

“To get those calves born in a week to 10 days a lot of times we are only talking about maybe 48 hours worth of additional labor,” Paschal says. “For that extra labor, there is a lot of profit potential.”

It is no secret synchronization and AI call for a higher degree of management. When producers decide to AI cows most of the time the dominant part of their expectations come with what that cow is going to produce. When in all fairness, just increasing the level of management is going to pay huge dividends.

“If your cows aren't cycling, you can't AI. They will cycle if you have good enough nutrition,” Emmons says. “In this system, you are going to identify hard doers and poor performers. You'll also identify cows that AI easily and figure out their daughters will do the same. We AI'd 35 heifers and in 60 days 33 of them were pregnant. AI forces you to select for fertility and it shows. You also find out interesting things about individual cows, like some cows will be in standing heat six to eight hours and others just for one.”

“With all this work management has increased. We have to have good herd health and nutrition. Good heat detection and insemination technique are also important,” Paschal says. “As we work to improve all these things we are going to make more efficient use of time, labor and dollars because we can concentrate on making genetic improvement. We can create offspring that fit whatever marketing system we have and do it in the most cost effective manner.”

“When I ask my cows to perform a certain way it makes my selection and culling decisions easier. You find out a lot of things when you start AIing a cow herd,” Vaughn says. “When you get those cows up and palpate them, especially heifers, sometimes you realize something isn't right, cull her right then and not waste any more resources on her. Fertility is another trait you learn a great deal about and sometimes figure out that cow doesn't belong in your herd.”

In these times of economic recession, value is sometimes hard to discover. Making genetic improvement should speak loud and clear from one generation to the next; however, does this always create value or add profitability. Using ART to fine tune the system and produce genetically superior animals is no guarantee.

Successful operations will tweak this system to fit the marketing plan. Overall goals will be met from a cost, profit and genetic improvement standpoint. Using ART and synchronization programs to streamline the assembly line may be the quickest way for producers to lock in profit.

“A lot of people look at the high cost of semen and say how does AI save any money. My AI sired calves have an automatically perceived higher value,” Vaughn. “If I have a lot of calves out of one bull, I know if he works in my herd or not and if his calves add value. AI and synchronization help us keep costs in check and add value to the calf crop.”

“AI makes you a better cow man. You are a lot more in tune with your cattle because you spend more time with them,” Emmons says. “I have been doing this a long time and you can learn a whole lot about your cow herd. I still have to make the right mating decisions to see added value, but we control our costs and use resources efficiently when we manage them better.”

“There are a lot of costs that get piled onto AI, when they should go to herd improvement. When we fine tune our management for AI we aren't going to do it with half the herd, we're going to apply it to the entire herd. Once the cost of AI is paid for the rest is genetic improvement,” Paschal says. “If you tighten your calving season 30 days that's a savings of roughly $2/day; if we save one or two percent more calves due to better herd health; if we get five percent more cows bred in the desired time frame because of better nutrition: these are savings people don't even realize and they add up quickly. People are too wrapped up in what's going to pay, when there is a lot of value created through better management.”







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