Dispelling the myths of artificial insemination

From the March issue of Drovers CattleNetwork.

"Doc! What do you think bulls will cost this year?"

"I don't know, but I am sure it will be more than last year. If you are worried, maybe you could look into AI."

"I don't think so. I did it once and we didn't get any better than Jim, plus it just takes so darn long!"

I know what you are thinking: "Great, another article trying to convince me to use AI. The last 40 didn't convince me. I am sure this vet's opinion won't get me any closer to it either."

Hold on before you stop reading. This is maybe the most common discussion I have with cow-calf producers this time of year. Every year I hear questions from producers regarding artificial insemination (AI) feasibility. And with each question I respond, absolutely you can use AI.

AI isn't meant to be easy and may not be meant for everyone, but it's also not that difficult for people to establish in their operation. I believe more operations can incorporate AI into their management practices than what is currently being done in the industry. According to the 2011 USDA National Animal Health Monitoring Service data, only 7.8 percent of all cow-calf producers utilize AI. One reason this number is low is because there are too many negative myths floating around about AI.

The following seem to be the most common reasons producers choose not to use AI, followed by a few facts dispelling each claim.

It costs too much money

Bull prices are at an all-time high. Many bull sale averages are up at least $1,000 from the year prior, while AI prices have stayed about the same. Including the cost of semen, but not counting labor, many CIDR-based timed synchronization programs will cost between $30 and $50 per head. The variation is due to semen cost. Semen prices will be determined largely on the number of straws purchased and demand for that sire. Compare that to purchasing a $7,500 to $10,000 bull at an auction, and AI can seem pretty lucrative.

Takes too much time

Breeding cattle off of heat detection is the gold standard for AI. The physical capital, hours of labor and infrastructure needed to accommodate heat detection can be a big cost to producers. However, timed- AI synchronization systems have been researched extensively and have shown great results in the real world. Many timed-AI programs have shown conception rates to be very close to heat detection without the extra labor and costs.

Conception rates are poor

What is a good conception rate for producers that use timed AI? I believe 50 percent is a reasonable expectation for one-time insemination. If you are getting better than that, fantastic. However, don't call it quits if you get a lesser percentage. Take time to identify areas of improvement. Have your veterinarian come out to your place. It is good to see the heifers roughly two months before you plan on breeding. This will give you a chance to go over synchronization protocols, prebreeding vaccinations, current body condition of the cattle, nutrition, movement of cattle before and after AI, semen handling and technique, and timing of pregnancy examination.

All calves are born on the same day

This might be the biggest myth. The correct answer on Dr. David Nichols" animal science 102 test at Kansas State University for average Angus-based bovine gestational length is 283 days. That was correct when I took the test in 1999 and it is still correct today. That does not mean every female will calve 283 days after she conceived post insemination. Many researchers have plotted calving intervals after a single timed insemination. I am always amazed by the results of these studies. Many of these studies show that cattle will calve up to 10 days before and 10 days after the AI due date. For example, if the AI due date was Feb. 15, the first AI calf born alive could be born as early as Feb. 5 and the last AI calf born on Feb. 25. This gives a 21-day calving window. That is a great deal of biological variation.

In conclusion, consult with your local veterinarian if you are thinking about AI breeding to discuss the facts and not the myths. If you have AI bred before and are not satisfied, don't become frustrated if you don't meet your expectations. Finally, it is good to remember neighbors always have a better conception rate, they always have a bigger weaning weight, and they always have a better wheat crop. I am sure there is a coffee shop in every small town where a 50 percent conception rate is too low because someone settled 80 percent on the fifth Saturday in a leap year during a lunar eclipse.

Just be honest with yourself and don't believe all of the myths. Good luck!