by: Clifford Mitchell

Progressive cattlemen look to the “tools of the trade” to help benefit the operation. Relying on advanced reproductive technology (ART) is something most operations fail to capitalize on. Extra management, most of the time, will work to an operators advantage.

Breeding programs tend to evolve with different strategies. Arguing the benefits of an artificial insemination (AI) program may in fact be two fold. For most, the genetic enhancement is the first thing that comes to mind and is easily identified when the calf crop is evaluated.

“AI is the most inexpensive way to improve the herd. I can use the best bulls in the breed at a fraction of what it would cost to own them,” says Mackie Bounds, Swinging B Ranch, Axtell, Texas.

“There are so many benefits to good genetics. The AI program allows us to target a certain product,” says Todd Kunkel, Lazy K Cattle Co., Bluejacket, Oklahoma.

“The AI program allows most operations to use bulls they can't afford to purchase and producers can make changes at a relatively low cost,” says Dr. Joe Paschal, Texas AgriLife Extension Beef Specialist, Corpus Christi, Texas.

The added benefits of an estrus synchronization program may be where the real dollars show. Synchronizing the cow herd will allow overall management to shine and many benefits will come through the controlled calving season.

“There are many benefits to the estrus synchronization program. When calves are born early, it means more pounds at weaning. A difference in 15 to 18 days could mean an extra 30 to 45 ponds and that's a lot of money today,” Paschal says. “Most producers don't realize what bull costs are. You're are actually paying that bull to check heats in a 120 day period, when you could have 60 to 70 percent of the cow herd bred in three days.”

“Early calves offer a ton of advantages. It gives those cows more time to recuperate. When we synchronize those early calvers and breed them one time we get 60 to 70 percent of those cows bred on the first cycle,” Kunkel says. “A controlled calving season is better for our bottom line. When we know specific calving dates we can get most of those calves born alive.”

“A tighter calving season allows us to be better managers,” Bounds says. “To be profitable with AI, we had to step up our management.”

Most ranchers face the same limitations when it comes to labor resources. Finding quality bulls at an affordable price, plus the carrying cost for bull power is another challenge most operations face. AI coupled with estrus synchronization allows outfits to dedicate resources at specific times throughout the calendar year.

“We AI every female a second time and still calve in a small window. Once we learned how to set up those cows and watch heats; we can breed most of those cows in three days. This allows us to plan our work schedule,” Bounds says. “It's a lot different than leaving a bull out there for 120 days. We can plan our activities and when we need to be around the ranch. Instead of watching cows every single day, we know when we need to be watching for heats.”

“Most of our cows will be calved out at day 45 of the calving season. All of our calves are uniform and that really pays in this market, especially when they are born early. It's pretty tiring waiting around for cows to calve. For us, a 60- to 90-day breeding season does little to add value to the calf crop,” Kunkel says. “If you do a good job synchronizing those cows it lessens the number of bulls you need and at $5,000 to $6,000 per bull that's a big investment. The other benefit synchronization provides is most of those cows are going to cycle in a three to four day period the second time.”

“The real reduction in bull power comes through estrus synchronization. Synchronization gets the work done early and most of the time 50 to 70 percent of those cows will be bred. With synchronization there's a 36 hour window that is most critical to check heats and inseminate cows. You can concentrate your labor and then turn out bulls and know you have to check heats twice a day starting in 18 days. It's the same when you start calving; those calves are going to come in a certain window and if you've planned right all you have to do is go tag them” Paschal says. “Carrying costs for a bull are usually one and half times more than what it costs to carry a cow. You have to dedicate separate space for those bulls, they are always fighting and there's a good chance they are tearing something up. You can easily re-direct this money into an AI program. ”

Utilizing specific breeds of bulls or bulls to make a product is another advantage of the AI program. Diversification in the seedstock program or utilizing proven bulls, with desired traits, to hit a target is another advantage.

“AI allows me to create specific products my customers demand. It's pretty easy to buy some semen, rather than culling the bull battery to go buy a different breed of bull. Sexed-semen is another great option because I have a good market for replacements,” Kunkel says. “When we feed calves with a known genetic background, we usually hit the target we have established because of the better genetics. AI brings a lot of value from a traceability standpoint. It adds value to a load of feeder calves or replacement females when they are sire identified.”

“My AI program makes me a more versatile seedstock supplier. I didn't get a premium for my registered cattle until I started taking advantage of the AI program and using the best bulls in the breed,” Bounds says. “I started establishing a program because I was creating groups of half sisters and my cattle have a look to them. It's not a shotgun approach, but a designed program to produce a product people want.”

“Taking advantage of an AI program will allow some producers to re-stock with the type of females they need for their environment and production goals. Sexed-semen is not perfect, but it's pretty accurate and you can use the breeds or breed combinations that are successful in your area,” Paschal says. “We have good Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs), some breeds have genomic enhanced EPDs, that will allow producers to change the cow herd. Genetic enhancement adds value to the overall program. You have the versatility to design whatever product you want. ”

Calving heifers and getting these legacies of the cow herd to rebreed as two-year olds is another dilemma most operations face. Utilizing proven calving ease genetics and synchronizing these heifers can set up the ranch for success.

“We have the tools today to mate heifers where we don't have to waste that first calf,” Paschal says. “Proven calving ease sires often will provide other useful traits and we can get live calves that will still weigh up. We no longer have to breed those heifers to bulls that are only going to provide us with a live calf.”

“Because we can calve our heifers before the mature cows and use proven calving ease bulls we almost always get a 100 percent calf crop. Those calves come easy and have a lot of vigor,” Kunkel says. “The genetic improvements we see are in udder quality and they rebreed. The synchronization program allows those heifers extra time because we're usually done calving heifers at least 21 days before mature cows start. Our two-year olds, most are AI sired, will wean a 600 pound calf and are bred back.”

The direct benefits of the AI and estrus synchronization program are well documented and, for most, is money in the bank. The indirect benefits of the program may provide as much financial incentive, make a better cow herd and fine-tune management.

“It makes you a better record keeper because without good records you aren't able to identify the cows that will calve in a specific time frame to be successful. I can group cattle in specific production groups and provide the right nutrition. Without good nutrition you are wasting your time trying to AI,” Bounds says. “I really have to watch the easy-keepers when I up the nutrition because cattle can get too fat, which causes a different set of problems.”

“AI usually leads to better overall management because people are spending more time with their cows,” Paschal says. “Indirect selection on fertility is another advantage and most people will pay more attention to good nutrition. Even if you just AI those heifers, synchronization will help identify sub-fertile females. Reproduction is a big economic indicator when it comes to profitability.”

“We indirectly select for more fertile females. The ones that don't work in the AI program do not stay in the herd,” Kunkel says. “Fertility is a lot better and we get better conception rates when we keep females produced in the AI program. Those cows that always breed early produce daughters that fit what we're trying to do.”

The total profit generated in this program is hard to deny. Genetic improvement is obviously the first goal and can be directly traced to the bull used in the program. The benefits from the estrus synchronization program are not as black and white, but regardless of where it comes from every dollar counts.

Taking advantage of the quick benefits may not always be the best option with genetic enhancement. Increased demand for popular genetics, especially the re-building environment, presents its own set of challenges. AI is not a short term fix, but a long term process with the goal of producing designer genetics that will keep cattlemen in business for the long haul.

“The ability to AI has increased the value of my herd. Those AI sired females are in big demand,” Bounds says. “You have to be patient and keep those genetics to improve the herd. It will make the next calf crop worth more.”

“We started our AI program in 2000 and through the use of proven multi-trait sires, every generation gets a little better,” Kunkel says. ‘It takes a certain level of commitment to stick to it. AI is not a one or two year process. You know what you're getting when you use proven bulls and you may have to change marketing tactics to get paid for the improvements you have made.”

“Everybody complains about the costs of an AI program. If you do the math it costs the same to get cows bred turning out a bull as it does to AI,” Paschal says. “The benefits, direct and indirect, will more than pay for an AI/estrus synchronization program. The females created in a long term program are even more valuable than the prices were seeing today.”

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