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Weighing AI vs. the bull

The advantages of AI can make it more economical than natural service

I often hear cattle producers suggest they can’t afford the added time and expense of AI for their breeding program. And it’s a sentiment that appears to be pretty widespread across the beef industry as a recent USDA survey indicates only about 13% of beef producers use artificial insemination (AI).

But are producers leaving money on the table by failing to tap into this technology? I like to use the adage “You’ve got to spend money to make money” – and in the case of AI, that’s pretty accurate.

Researchers have recently begun to address the costs and benefits associated with AI compared to natural service. In their comparisons “synchronization/AI + natural service” is being compared with “100% natural service,” since the use of only AI is unrealistic on most cow/calf operations due to the labor requirements associated with a 60-day heat detection period.

For each individual operation it comes down to weighing the advantages and disadvantages (many are possible and/or theoretical) for both synchronization/AI and natural service.

Pros & Cons
Possible advantages of synchronization/AI include:
· Genetic improvement – it can be cheaper to access an outstanding sire via his semen (e.g. $15/straw) vs. natural service (>$5,000/bull).

· Increased weaning weight – more cows conceiving earlier in the breeding season can result in older and heavier calves at weaning.

· Increased calf crop uniformity – more calves can be born at the same time, and also sired by closely-related bulls.

· Increased herd productivity – including improvements in the “quality” of retained replacement heifers, early identification of reproductive problems, and collection of performance data for future breeding/culling decisions.

· Increased reproductive performance – earlier-calving cows have a longer period of time to rebreed, and proven low birthweight AI sires can reduce calving difficulty.

· Reduced bull costs – costs to purchase and maintain bulls should be lower, since fewer are needed for previously-inseminated cows.

Possible disadvantages of synchronization/AI include:

· Increased management – more intense knowledge and management will be needed to oversee labor, resources, synchronization drug administration, AI technique, and facilities compared to natural service.

· Increased investment – costs will include additional labor, facilities, semen, equipment, and estrous synchronization drugs.

· Increased risk – most proven synchronization protocols can achieve pregnancy rates to AI of 40 to 60%; however, it is possible to have extremely poor pregnancy rates to AI (less than 20%, or worse) if extraneous variables are not managed.

Considering Costs
In terms of the breeding cost per pregnancy, costs can vary substantially among both breeding options. Calculations from Dr. Sandy Johnson at Kansas State University indicate that natural service costs range from $15 to 82/pregnancy, depending on bull purchase price and bull-to-cow ratio.

Similarly, synchronization/AI costs ranged from $39 to 52/pregnancy in a survey of Nebraska beef operations. However, in that survey any additional costs to improve facilities and/or additional revenues received from replacement heifers or calf crops were not accounted for.

Generally, research indicates that cost-per-pregnancy appears to be higher for synchronization/AI, especially in smaller herds. This is due to the fairly substantial investment in equipment and facilities by smaller herds (i.e. fixed costs) that must be divided over fewer cows.

However, when increased calf weaning weight is accounted for, several proven synchronization/AI protocols can cost less than natural service. Furthermore, if pregnancy rate to AI can be increased above 50%, the increased cost for most synchronization/AI protocols can be overcome.

In terms of possible medium- or long-term benefits of synchronization AI (e.g. improved feedlot gain, carcass quality, reproductive performance, or overall quality of the cowherd), researchers are beginning to compile data from long-term studies that will hopefully become available in the next few years. This will provide further basis for determining the value of AI vs. natural service.

The Bottom Line
Synchronization and AI can be a valuable tool for beef producers; however, it is not widely used due to the many challenges associated with its proper implementation.

Evidence indicates that natural service can be a lower cost option than synchronization/AI protocols on a per-pregnant-cow basis. Yet, when costs are calculated on a per-hundredweight of calf basis, several synchronization/AI protocols are cheaper than natural service.

It also appears that if improvements in average calf age and weight are incorporated, synchronization/AI can yield a greater return on investment than natural service – which may make AI worth considering.

Ultimately, producers should critically evaluate their own operation to determine which type of breeding system to use, taking into account their own production costs, need for improved genetics, and management capabilities.

Editor’s note: Additional information on synchronization and AI options for beef cattle, including proven estrous synchronization protocols currently available, can be accessed on-line at