Recent developments have made artificial insemination (AI) more convenient for commercial beef operations. Advanced synchronization protocols and sexed semen are the real game changers for the commercial sector, says Sean McGrath of Vermilion, Alta. He’s been using AI extensively on his commercial herd for the past five years and now helps teach a farmer course at Lakeland College in Vermilion.
McGrath and Genex Cooperative’s Western Canada beef sales manager, Richard Carlson of Ponteix, Sask., were among the presenters and exhibitors at a recent heifer development workshop. According to Carlson, uptake of AI by commercial producers is continuing to increase, mainly because they want the consistency of the end product. There isn’t a typical profile of a producer who uses AI –— Genex has clients with herds numbering well over a 1,000 and others who want to AI only a few heifers. AI on heifers is one of the most common scenarios.
McGrath says it’s important to know your goal when choosing to incorporate AI into your breeding program. “AI has to be part of a whole herd improvement program,” he stresses. “You likely won’t be successful if you are using AI just to try to save money on buying and keeping bulls.” His goal is to improve the genetics of his herd. Some of the advantages he sees in using AI to accomplish his goal are that it offers secure access to a wide selection of proven genetics, the ability to produce a uniform calf crop, the opportunity to increase revenue, and it improves herd health by eliminating sexually transmitted diseases.
“AI is a fast way to improve your herd, but it can also be a fast way to damage your herd,” he cautions. Success depends as much upon knowing your goal and your desire to effectively use AI as it does upon your technique and consistency in its application and heat detection. The general health, vaccination and nutritional status of your herd are also important success factors.
In his experience, the best AI sires will be proven bulls that do what you need them to do to achieve your goal, not necessarily the best-selling or most photogenic bulls in a catalogue. It’s important to understand the expected progeny difference (EPD) numbers and that the biggest numbers won’t always be best for your herd.
If you want to try young, non-proven sires, his advice is to test them on a few females before using them on the whole herd. It’s important to be just as selective in your choice of cleanup bulls, which means that you’ll likely have to pay more for better-quality bulls to maintain uniformity in the calf crop for marketing purposes.
There are more than 120 beef sires in the current Genex catalogue. Many are highly proven bulls that commercial beef producers could never dream of owning, yet AI makes it affordable to produce entire calf crops of half-brothers and half-sisters from any number of those bulls.
“We work with producers to find out their goals and tailor the genetic package to what the producer wants, be it on the terminal side or maternal side,” Carlson explains. “Above all we want to stay away from single-trait selecting so that we put together a useful package.”
Within the past decade, Genex has been incorporating DNA marker technology into its program to compliment EPDs. There are now 56 genetic markers in the panels used to predict marbling, tenderness and feed efficiency listed in the Pfizer MVPs (molecular value predictions) for each bull.
DNA profiling of all new Angus bulls in the Genex lineup was introduced in 2010. Pfizer Animal Genetics’ BovineSNP50 chip technology looks at 50,000 individual SNP (single-nucleotide polymorphism) markers to predict a wide variety of calving, growth, efficiency, maternal, carcass and quality grade traits with even greater accuracy. So far, they are finding that the expectations reflected in a bull’s EPDs and predictions derived from the DNA profi les closely mirror one another, Carlson says. The DNA profile projection is 70 per cent accurate when compared with EPDs for the live progeny.
Carlson says sexed semen is something that has been on the drawing board for the beef industry for quite some time, however, its availability and use by seedstock and commercial producers alike has really ramped up during the last three years or so. Genex’s sales of sexed semen tripled, then quadrupled in the two most recent years and are expected to continue the dramatic increase, especially on the commercial side.
Using male-sexed semen from proven sires with calving ease and growth performance is a good choice for use on heifers to maximize uniformity and return on those first calves, Carlson explains. Male-sexed semen from terminal sires with superior performance and carcass traits used on mature cows can help to improve the bottom line, particularly for producers who have found ways to market their calves on quality attributes or those who retain ownership for value-added markets.
Sexed semen sorted to produce female offspring is finding a place as the industry enters into rebuilding mode in response to encouraging market signals, Carlson says. Many commercial producers want to raise their own replacement heifers off their best cows to match their goals for their herds. Selecting female-sexed semen to produce consistent groups of half-sisters will expedite the process.
Genex now has two options for sexed semen in five major beef breeds (Angus, Red Angus, Simmental, Charolais and Hereford). GenChoice 90 is expected to produce the desired gender 90 per cent of the time, while GenChoice75 is expected to produce the desired gender 75 per cent of the time. GenChoice75 is priced very similar to conventional semen with GenChoice90 commanding a slightly higher premium.
Protocols for synchronizing estrus in beef cows and heifers are recommended by the Beef Reproduction Task Force, which is a collaboration of American universities that gathers the latest research, tests the protocols and annually publishes those proven to be the most effective. The various protocols involve administering one or a combination of hormones at specific time points leading up to insemination.
McGrath says the advance synchronization protocols using CIDR (controlled internal drug release) or PRID (progesterone release intravaginal devices) have greatly reduced the labour once required for heat detection and AI. Be warned though — the heat synchronization programs available today work great, he adds. So don’t start out by synchronizing 100 cows at one time unless you have skilled help available for inseminating. A suggested rule of thumb is to synchronize cows in groups that can be inseminated within a four-hour time period.
If you do AI 100 cows on the same day, it doesn’t mean that 100 calves will be born on the same day. Research has shown there is enough variation in the length of gestation that cows bred on the same day will calve over a period of about two weeks with only about 20 per cent of the calves born in a single day.
Genex staff will work with you to help determine which protocol(s) would be the best fit for your operation, however, the hormones must be purchased through a veterinarian.
Most producers weigh the cost of the hormones against the cost of labour when making their decision. For example, the simplest protocol for heifers involves the use of one hormone and AI upon detecting heat. The task force ranks it at the low end for cost and high end for labour. The most advanced fixed-time protocols eliminate the need to heat detect by using a series of treatments involving two hormones and a progesterone-releasing device to bring all animals into heat on the same day. They are rated at the high end for cost, but medium for labour.
Your breeding season and pasture system are also important considerations, says McGrath. You could lean toward a protocol that requires somewhat more labour and lower-cost hormone therapy when the cows are close by (for example, if you have an early breeding season before turnout or use a tight rotational grazing system), when someone on the farm is doing the AI, and you have help with heat detecting. Fixed-time AI has merit in situations where you will be hiring someone to do the inseminating or when the cows will be grazing a wide expanse of pasture making it difficult to do a proper job of heat detection and time consuming to bring the cows into a holding area with a chute or AI box.
McGrath suggests checking twice a day as a minimum for heat detection. Breeding activity is at its highest during the night and remains most noticeable in the early morning and evening. AI should take place about 12 hours after observing standing heat, so animals detected in heat in the morning should be AI’d in the evening and vice versa.
If you’ve been putting off taking a course because you feel AI is out of your league, McGrath offers assurance that the thought of taking the course and incorporating a different strategy into his breeding program is more intimidating than actually doing it.
A complete AI course includes four or five full days of practice to learn the proper technique along with some related theory about estrus synchronization, heat detection, nutrition and vaccination programs.
Technique is all about consistency and consistency is all about practice, McGrath explains. You want to be able to recognize the parts of the anatomy by touch and visualize how they fit together. You’ll be well prepared after taking a course, but if you feel you need to brush up before the start of breeding season, there’s no harm in bringing in a few cows (they don’t have to be in heat) to practise using blank straws.
If it turns out that inseminating isn’t your forte, there are AI company reps and custom AI technicians who provide the service. Another alternative is to get together with a few producers to pay the training expenses for a local person who is interested in a part-time career as an AI technician and willing to accommodate the needs of the group. A group effort can also pay off when purchasing semen if you can put together orders that are large enough to qualify for volume discounts.
Straws of frozen semen are stored in canes of 10 in an AI tank containing liquid nitrogen to keep them at -180 F. Each straw must be warmed — not too quickly, not too slowly and all of the way through — to body temperature within 35 seconds to a minute before depositing the semen through the cervix to the uterus of the cow. Commercial temperature-controlled water bath units are available, however, a thermos of lukewarm water will work if you are starting out with only a few animals.
The fertility rate of thawed semen rapidly declines after about two minutes, therefore, it’s important to remove the straws from the tank and warm them one by one as needed. You want to avoid letting the semen sit out too long waiting for a cow, or thawing and refreezing straws, he stresses. It’s equally important to have your AI tank checked and topped up with nitrogen every 90 days or so by an AI company field rep.
Semen orders can be processed and delivered within one to 10 days by the field rep or shipped via any carrier approved to handle liquid nitrogen, depending on your location. For best results, it pays to plan well ahead. Carlson says it’s not unusual for Genex reps to work with producers for up to a year, and sometimes even two years, prior to implementing an estrus synchronization and AI program for the first time.
They’ll visit the ranch to look at the cattle and facilities and discuss herd health, nutrition and protocols with you. Carlson recommends going over your vaccination program with your veterinarian to be sure you have enough lead time to get the vaccinations done up well in advance of AI, not only for general health reasons, but because some products can have a short-term adverse effect on the reproductive system. The animals must be cycling on their own before you begin the program, so they want to make sure they see activity, particularly in the heifer pen. If not, you may need to consider alternatives.
AI doesn’t require elaborate facilities, but you do need to be able to hold the animals quietly in a chute or AI box. Lassoing and snubbing a cow to the nearest tree isn’t adequate. Aside from the fact that it will make your task more difficult, stress on the animal increases the level of cortisol, which can block the release of the hormone that triggers ovulation. This year, Genex plans to introduce a portable breeding barn service.
“Consistency over a few years is when AI really shines,” Carlson comments. “We bring a whole program to people because our goal is to do everything possible to make AI work so you will come back.
Yes, an effective AI program does involve an investment of time and money, however, he says you have to keep in mind that the purpose of the investment is to maximize returns from your cow herd. It’s not unlike crop producers who spend time and money planning their rotation, fertilizer and weed control programs to maximize their returns from the land.
AI doesn’t require elaborate facilities, but you do need to be able to hold the animals quietly in a chute or AI box