Positive Change

Accept the AI Challenge

Victoria G Myers
By  Victoria G. Myers , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Tennessee's school for AI has issued 220 certifications since the program started in 2013. (Photo by Patricia McDaniels/UT Institute of Agriculture)

Tennessee's training course on artificial insemination (AI) turned into a family project for the Blacks of Color Wheel Farm, in Vonore, Tennessee. Brad, Kim and son Adam went through the two-day program in 2014, and have since turned what they learned into a foundation for positive change in their commercial beef herd.

Brad says since the training, he's become the "chute man," while Kim works cows and heifers they've chosen to artificially inseminate. They aren't using AI on the entire herd yet, but that is the goal.

SIRE POWER

The Blacks work a 120-head cow herd and raise their own replacements. They are growing the herd with a goal of 200 cows. For this farm, AI is a way to get maximum sire power at a reasonable price.

The program the Blacks attended has brought a lot of producers around to the idea that AI can help improve their herds. It's so popular, the waiting list has more than 400 names from all over the world.

Justin Rhinehart, Extension beef specialist at the University of Tennessee, coordinates the program the Blacks attended. He notes it has drawn a lot of interest since the first class in March 2013.

In just four short years and 18 classes, Rhinehart says 220 AI certifications have come out of the program. The two-day course costs $450. A partnership of the Middle Tennessee AgResearch and Education Center, the University of Tennessee Animal Science Department and Southeast Select Sires, this AI school takes place at Spring Hill, Tennessee, less than an hour drive out of Nashville.

Who wants to learn to AI? Rhinehart says attendees are mixed, with about 70% being seedstock producers. The rest are commercial cattle producers, with a few dairymen in the mix. Average herd size represented is 25 to 30 cows and one bull. Nearly a quarter of attendees have 100 head or more.

Rhinehart says the course isn't just about learning how to use an insemination rod. It's as much about how beef cattle reproduction works as anything, with a goal of making sure producers know how to have cows and heifers in the best shape possible to maximize effectiveness of AI work.

NEW WAYS

Kim Black's family has been raising cattle for 40 years, but she learned a lot about the reproductive side of the business taking an AI course.

"Even if you don't intend to be hands on with the AI work, understanding how reproduction works is so important," she points out. "There were things they told us that were new, despite all the years we've had cattle. This is not cattle-raising like your granddaddy or your daddy did it. We're in a different world now, and margins are so slim, you have to take every opportunity you can get. For us, this was just that, an opportunity to improve."

Brad says they've stayed focused on using AI with heifers and their best-performing cows.

"I load the alleyway and keep the cows coming," he says. "I can tell you two things matter with an AI program: You need docility, and you need good handling facilities. You are going to be getting these cattle up multiple times to synchronize them and pull CIDRs [controlled internal drug release]. If you can't handle, them it's going to be a problem."

OPERATION GOALS

The Blacks have a three-way cross herd of Angus, Hereford and SimAngus. Docility is the top trait they cull on now, Brad says. With semen selection, they look for bulls that will give them good weaning weights but also good udders, good feet and a manageable frame size. The ultimate goal for replacement heifers is longevity, along with productivity.

Currently, an operation goal is to downsize cows to between 1,100 and 1,300 pounds. Brad says he has some cows that are more than 1,500 pounds, a trend he definitely doesn't want to see continue.

"That's just entirely too big. They won't wean a calf any better or bigger than a 1,200-pound cow. We are bringing those sizes down through this AI program and good sire selection," he explains.

They are also using AI to help tighten spring- and fall-calving seasons. The fall herd now has a calving season of around 64 days; the spring herd is at 75 to 80 days. Brad says the goal is a 60-day season for both.

FULL HERD AI PLAN

Ultimately, the Blacks want to AI all the females in the herd, and Kim thinks 2017 might be the year for that.

"We've baby-stepped into this, but when we finished this last time, I said I wished we'd done the whole herd. If we can get the logistics right, that's my goal. It gets easier as you do it more," she says.

Kim adds: "Learning to AI is a bit intimidating. I won't tell you it's not. But you can learn it, and I'm excited because I think it's a challenge we can look at and overcome. I can run a combine, and I can drive a truck, and, yes, I can AI cattle. If you take the time, you will get it. The more you do it, the more comfortable you get and the more successful you are."

AI PAYBACK

Brad adds there are financial positives to the program they are just beginning to take advantage of. First is the better bull he gets with AI work.

"We can't afford those $20,000 bulls," he says. His average bull costs between $4,000 and $4,500. "With AI, though, we can use top-end bulls, and we don't have to use just one. Last time, we used five different bulls to help us with that three-way cross."

They synchronize with a 14-day CIDR prostaglandin protocol, then AI. They preg-check about a month later and put open females in with a cleanup bull. Conception rates on one AI for both cows and heifers fall between 40 and 50%. Brad adds they still have six bulls, a number he's looking to cut back as they AI more of the cow herd.

FEWER BULLS

"We feel if we can keep AI conception rates in the 40s and 50s, we will be able to reduce our bull power. That means we can quit worrying so much about a bull's feet or low semen counts, or any of those things that go with keeping a bull year-round."

At 45 days post cleanup bull, the Blacks preg-check. Because he has two breeding seasons, Brad says an open female at this point isn't necessarily going to be culled. If he has the feed to carry her, he'd rather sell her later as a bred heifer or cow.

One advantage he's seen on the market side from AI is a much-improved calf crop in terms of uniformity. Brad says they precondition and background calves 45 to 70 days after weaning. He sells private treaty and even works with his buyer on bull selection to ensure he's producing what the market wants.

"Once you've weaned these AI calves, it's a nice feeling to be able to stand behind them and see you could just about lay a ruler on their backs," Brad says. "They are just awfully uniform. This also helps in our breeding program, because you know those heifers in that first group are going to be reaching sexual maturity at the same time. It all works together."

Going to AI School:

Every artificial insemination (AI) training program is different. Prices vary, as do curriculums and length of time. The program the Blacks of Color Wheel Farm went through is a good example of a format focused on producers that goes beyond the mechanics.

The University of Tennessee Department of Animal Science works with Select Sires in this AI training program. Select Sires is the largest semen provider to the beef industry in North America.

A typical program schedule covers bovine female reproduction, tract anatomy, hormones and physiology. Time is spent discussing bull reproductive anatomy and hormones, as well, to help attendees fully understand bull fertility and issues that can cause lost conception in a herd.

AI technique and palpation are part of the program, along with an explanation of equipment and prices. Students learn how to handle semen and detect heat in females, as well as estrus-synchronization protocols and pregnancy diagnosis. Developing heifers and reproductive health in general is part of the discussion, along with a review of reproductive diseases and how they affect fertility.

Justin Rhinehart, Extension beef specialist at the University of Tennessee, coordinates this AI program. He says there are five to six schools every year. Dates for 2017 spring schools are February 20 through 21, March 20 through 21 and April 24 through 25. Fall schools had not been scheduled at press time. Cost to attend is $450, but there is a waiting list. Fees include training materials, instruction and lunch both days. Equipment and semen are available for purchase during the program.

Rhinehart says there are several good AI schools across the country for producers. He suggests checking with a local Extension beef specialist, county agent or veterinarian for recommendations.

FOR MORE INFORMATION:

Here are a few sources for producers interested in learning more about artificial insemination in beef cattle:

-- University of Tennessee AI course: bit.ly/2ivryMt

-- Agtech: bit.ly/2iWMJGj

-- Texas A&M University: bit.ly/2hK0eNH

-- Mississippi State University: bit.ly/2i2x4W0

-- Select Sires: www.selectsiresbeef.com

(VM/AG)

Victoria Myers