by: Heather Smith Thomas

“We are seeing increased use of AI in beef cattle,” says Carl Rugg (Bovine Elite). “This past year with the drought in southern states, breeders who were able to keep females have trimmed their herds—keeping just the best cows—and they will be using more AI this year. Producers who want to stay current with the rest of the industry use AI as part of their program. We see an increase in the use of AI for production purposes and to build back herds, and keep those generations moving, with progress in genetics. You can fall behind if you don't,” he says.

At a recent AI school at Fort Collins, Colorado, the cost of doing AI versus buying bulls was discussed. “I asked producers to give me their numbers,” says Willie Altenburg (Genex). They argued about what it costs to buy a bull. Some said $3,000 and some said $5,000; prices have gone up in the last couple years. They finally came to a $4,500 figure—even though some said it needs to be higher and others said they can't afford bulls that high.

“The cost per pregnancy for a bull—figuring in the fences he wrecked and the feed he ate—if you used him for 3.5 years and he gave you 25 calves per year, was $74 per calf. Then we figured the AI side, with fixed time insemination and cleanup bulls, and came up with $62 per calf. The producers were surprised, but realized that AI has never been more affordable than it is right now, with high cost of bulls,” says Altenburg.

More large herds are incorporating AI into their business plan. “It is affordable, and the technicians who come to these ranches to give a full service program can quickly and easily get 50 to 60 percent of the females pregnant on the first day of AI season.” Having that many females pregnant early always makes the producer money.

You can select the genetics you want for certain traits. You can breed heifers to calving ease bulls with high growth and good maternal traits (and keep replacement heifers from that group) and the cows to a high performance bull or terminal sire for bigger calves to sell or to make money on retained ownership through the feeding phase. “I make more money with an $18 straw of semen than I do with anything else I do with my cows,” says Altenburg.

AI definitely pays off, according to Darrell Wilkes (ABS). “Just getting heifers to calve early in the season not only gives them a higher probability of remaining early-calvers for the rest of their lives but you more than pay for the AI with the added weaning weights of their calves. Improved genetics is a plus, calving ease is a plus, but if those calves are 10 days older they are 20 pounds heavier. At $1.80 per pound this covers the cost of the AI program.” This gives heifers' calves a chance to be a little bigger and fit more uniformly with the mature cows' calves—because heifers' calves, on average, tend to be smaller.

“Heifers are very easy to AI because you don't have to sort calves off them. Most of our reps can go onto a ranch, and with just a cowboy or two to push cattle through the chute, they do 200-300 heifers before lunch. The reps manage the synchronization program and bring in a breeding barn, and it's easily accomplished,” says Wilkes.

With the markets this high most producers can afford AI and benefit more from it than they ever could before. AI can also be used as a reproductive management tool. “We've had customers with long calving seasons—sometimes as long as 120 days. They knew it was costing them money, so they used synchronization and AI to move the later cows up. It takes a few years and a little patience, but you can take a 120-day calving season and cut it in half,” he explains.

“That's worth a lot, especially when calves are worth $1.80 per pound. Synchronization can be used to front-load the calving season and get a lot more of the calves born early—which means they will be heavier at weaning time,” says Wilkes.

“Unfortunately there aren't many people taking full advantage of the benefits with higher cattle prices,” says Lance Ellsworth (part owner of Cattle Visions). “Hopefully people will realize that proven genetics will reward them in the future, in terms of uniform calf crops. We also have better predictability of carcass merits. Producers have an opportunity to capitalize on things like Certified Angus Beef premiums if they use certain genetics.” It's a plus to be able to get more money for your product.

“This is a great opportunity to improve maternal traits in a herd, as well. With the nation's cow inventory being at an all-time low, there is great opportunity this year—if producers used AI—to greatly influence their cow herd genetics and reap more profits in the future,” says Ellsworth.

“We are seeing record bull sale prices right now, and that's great for the seedstock breeders, but buying semen and using synchronization to breed the cows is cheaper than investing in an unproven bull. With genomic testing, we also have more information on the cattle. The more data, the better. We have seen improvements in the dairy industry with genomic testing and I am sure we will continue to do so with beef traits,” he says.

Ellsworth feels that the beef industry as a whole has a great opportunity right now. “Premiums will continue, and producers can be rewarded for certain niche markets and striving to produce cattle for those markets. This is something that is great about the beef industry, compared with the poultry business, for instance. Branded beef programs that stress uniformity will continue to grow. AI is a cheap investment that will enable the producer to reap rewards; it's a cost-efficient investment,” he says.

“Most producers who are using AI to select and use bulls with good carcass traits will have to retain ownership of those cattle to take full advantage of this,” says Jack Ganje (Universal). “Otherwise someone else reaps the benefit from your investment. There isn't very much retained ownership right now, and I think we'll have to see more of that—owning the cattle all the way through—so someone else isn't taking part of your money.”

Allen Bush (All West) says that with today's market prices and the value of cattle, more people are considering use of artificial insemination. “They are not just breeding their heifers AI for calving ease (which has been the entry level for most producers). They are now looking at carcass traits they can get if they breed the cows to certain AI bulls. Producers may run all the cows through at least once, and get one AI service to improve the value of the calves,” he says.

“One thing that's been helpful in encouraging more producers to use AI is the availability of specialized portable breeding barns,” says Wilkes. “These look like a horse trailer. Most of the ones we use will accommodate two cows at a time. You can run some pretty wild cows or heifers through a breeding barn and get along fine.” They have another cow/heifer for security, and it's dark and quiet in the little barn, which reduces stress.

“They are not restrained in any way; their head isn't caught, so they aren't fighting the confinement. They are standing on the ground rather than a floor, which also helps keep them calm and comfortable,” explains Wilkes.

The most popular model is the Large's breeding barn, invented by Marvin Large, a longtime ABS rep from western Nebraska. “After breeding tens of thousands of cattle in an old chute or some other inadequate facility, Marvin started figuring out a better system. When we breed heifers at Simplot's facility at Grandview, Idaho we usually have two of those set up, with a three man crew in each barn. Two people are breeding and the other person thaws semen. With this system we can breed 200 heifers per hour,” he says.

“This makes it very easy for commercial producers to breed their cows or heifers with AI. Colorado State University did a survey a few years ago and the reason cited most often by producers as to why they don't AI was not the cost; it was the hassle factor and facilities. But when you can do total synchronization and timed AI, and bring in a breeding barn, you cut the hassle factor by 80 percent and solve the facility problem. All you need is an alley or running chute to bring cattle to the breeding barn,” says Wilkes.

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