Ask the Vet

All About The Bull

Choosing between an all-AI program and a bull is not as simple as it may seem, but there are options. (DTN/Progressive Farmer photo by Sam Wirzba)

Question: I just bought 10 heifers and was told it would be cheaper to breed them using artificial insemination (AI) than to buy a bull. If this is right, what do I need to do to get started?

Answer: From a strictly economic sense, you were told right. A good bull could cost $3,000 to $5,000. Divided out over 10 heifers, that is a lot of investment on a per-head basis. The cost of AI, at first glance, would seem to be less.

It's important to understand, though, that AI is not a slam dunk. Unless you can AI them yourself, you need to retain someone to breed the cows for you. In most of these cases, you would also want to synchronize the heifers' heats so that all or most of them would be ready to breed at the same time. This is called estrus synchronization.

There are many "synch" programs available to cattlemen, but they all take time, effort and money. I'd also point out that AI is nowhere close to 100% when it comes to conception rates. Generally, a 60% conception rate is considered about average when you're talking AI. If that were the case, you would average four open cows that would need to continue to be observed for heat and continue to be artificially inseminated until they were bred. The alternative would be a cleanup bull they would be exposed to after the AI. So we've come back to the bull.

Another option to consider, and one that works for many operators, is leasing a bull. This should be done with caution, as bulls can carry venereal diseases that can lead to infertility or abortion. So, make sure you deal with only reputable people who test their bulls for diseases prior to leasing them out.

You could also contract with someone to breed your heifers alongside some of their own. In this case, both you and the other producer need to address disease prevention with good herd-health programs and a biosecurity plan.

The last option is to send these heifers to a professional heifer-development program if there is one in your area. Because this is their business, they bring economies of scale to every aspect of heifer development, including feeding, labor, drug and semen costs. This can be a very cost-effective option.