No Bull Pt. 1
I want to delve into a big topic starting this week and I will expand on the actual process next week. I know that some of you may not be used to talking about reproductive biology so openly, but try to keep in mind that I have grown up talking about the science of breeding. I get uncomfortable when humans come up and my mouth is suddenly wired shut. When it's cows, it's just another day on the ranch. What I am talking about is artificial insemination (AI).
I know that since we sell all of our steers as "All Natural" there may be some push back whenever I say that we do something artificial. However, we must admit that agriculture is, by its very nature, unnatural. We do not simply ride out into the wild herd of cows that have been here since the beginning of time and round up a steer when we are hungry. We do try to keep things that are overly in contention with nature out of our cattle unless it is needed for the animals welfare (i.e. an antibiotic to fight an infection). In those cases, the animal is no longer considered all natural and is sold separately.
How is it that I don't consider something with "artificial" in the name in conflict with nature? Because parts of the process are natural and the other parts we are assisting nature to get the desired results. Next week we will get into the nuts and bolts of AI, but for now lets leave it at this: the semen is normal bull semen and we just alter the estrous cycle of females for timing purposes. The semen has just been collected from a "stud" and stored until use. We don't use some genetically mutated semen grown in a lab. And the cycles of the females are "synched" so that we don't have to be trying to time the breeding over weeks.
I should lay all my cards on the table, I think it is wonderful. I'm a huge proponent of AI. If you have reservations about it or maybe even a complete animosity toward the process, let me know. I would be happy to explore any problems you have on the subject. On our place, we mostly just AI heifers because it is difficult to bring the cows in from the pasture to breed, but it is still a cornerstone of our breeding program. Now, let me tell you why I am such a fan.
To start, I do see it as positive for the welfare of the animals. You can use a stud that is shown with high accuracy to sire calves that are born with more ease than others. Sexually transmitted diseases, while hopefully are always out of the herd, aren't transmitted by proper, sanitary AI technique. Bulls weighing literally a ton are not always easy on young or small cattle. Unfortunately, we still mostly breed our cows with natural service, but I think it would be good for the cows if they all had at least one opportunity to conceive using AI.
The cost of AI is a benefit that is worth considering. It's not that you can get away completely from buying bulls. AI conception is generally from 50-60% and bulls are still needed to breed what AI doesn't get done. But you can buy fewer bulls. For example: each straw of semen costs about $20. There are additional costs of AI, but for the sake of this lets assume they add up to about $50. A bull bought at auction could cost anywhere from $4,000 to $10,000. For the sake of this lets say that we bought a bull for $5,000. If he breeds 25 cows per year for four years his cost of breeding is $50 dollars per breeding event. However, he takes feed and care, he may not last that long if he gets injured fighting, and handling bulls always involves some risk. In addition, you can't buy one of these AI studs for $10,000. These are considered to be top of the line and will go for tens of thousands or even into the hundreds of thousand of dollars in extreme cases.
The reason they are so expensive is they are believed to have the best genetics. This is where AI really improves the herd. Every time you buy a new bull you are taking a risk on his performance and what kind of calves he will sire. This remains true for new AI studs, but you can also buy from proven sires. These sires have been been thoroughly tested on the health, structure, vigor, and carcass quality of the calves. You know with an increased amount of predictability what kind of calves to expect and can work with more certainty toward your goals whether that is improving feed efficiency or carcass traits or maybe a combination of things.
One last benefit is that when you synchronize your cattle for AI, you are making it so your calves are born closer together. For people selling through an auction, this is tremendously important because buyers what groups to be as even as possible. It helps the health of the calves because younger calves with undeveloped immune systems often catch diseases from older calves that have picked up pathogens. The more older calves, the better. Calving earlier in the calving season makes it more likely for cows to breed back during breeding season, too. This means they are less likely to be sold because they didn't conceive.
I know that I just threw a whole bunch of information out there about AI, but I hope that you found it interesting. I want you all to know why it is that I think artificial insemination is a good thing. But I also want to know what you think. Did this help or change your mind at all? Next week I hope to cover the process of AI, but our first branding is next Saturday so that may change my mind. Before I go, here is the picture of Will that I promised. I think I have an idea of how to splint his leg and hold the hooves down so that he learns to walk correctly, but I want to talk to a vet before I try it. For now, he is still knuckling around.
by Brandon Greet