Mike Mutch uses bulls worth six figures on his beef farm near Silk Hope, North Carolina. That may not be unheard of in the cattle industry, but for a part-time producer with 38 cows, it's a definite point of pride. What makes it possible? Artificial insemination (AI). The technology allows producers like Mutch to tap into the country's best beef genetics. He credits it for his top-notch Angus cow herd, built over the past 15 years.
Mutch has a unique business plan. He AIs commercial Angus cows with semen from top sires. He then breeds heifers from the cross and keeps the young females for one or two calves. After that, he sells proven three- to four-year-old cows to other cattlemen building herds.
"I'm focused on the replacement female market. A lot of cattlemen don't want to deal with calving heifers, and I can sell them—proven young cows that have raised outstanding calves," says Mutch.
To maximize production of females, Mutch uses gender-sorted semen. Sorted semen costs approximately twice as much as regular semen from the same sire, and the straws contain smaller quantities.
Gender-sorted semen helps a producer like Mutch produce higher percentages of female offspring. It can also work for a higher percentage of males -- in the case of a producer looking to produce bulls or more steers for the feedlot, for instance. While not perfect, the gender-sorted, or sexed, semen has a success rate of 58%, says Mutch's veterinarian, Richard Kirkman, of Siler City, N.C. Kirkman AIs Mutch's herd.
BEST GENETICS AT A BARGAIN
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Using AI, a producer could pick the best 2% of all bulls in a breed to sire the next generation of calves. That's one of the huge advantages the technology offers the industry.
"There's no way commercial producers can afford to buy that kind of sire for their cow herds," says veterinarian Dee Whittier, a bovine specialist at Virginia Tech. "You may also inject genetics from another breed into your herd, without buying bulls from that breed."
Whittier has a set of costs-versus-benefits that help producers considering using AI on commercial herds. He says based on a 100-cow herd, AI costs are approximately $49.50 per cow. These costs include drugs used to synchronize estrus in cows to prepare them for breeding, the cost of AI semen, and the cost of AI technicians and labor to bring cows through the chute three times.
He adds that semen companies often give volume discounts, so commercial producers can purchase semen from proven bulls with solid Expected Progeny Differences (EPDs) for less than $20 per straw.
"My philosophy for breeding commercial cattle is that you don't chase the newest and hottest bulls with the highest semen costs," Whittier says. "You can economize on semen and still get very good, proven bulls."
In addition, thanks to synchronization, research shows a 100-cow herd bred using AI produces an average of three more calves, compared to a natural service herd.
NET MORE PER COW
Virginia cattleman Terry Slusher estimated the return on AI with his commercial beef herd at approximately $177 more per cow/calf pair in 2016. Based near Floyd, he says he pencils that out this way: Synchronized breeding on 160 cows means 89% of Slusher's calves are born the first 30 days of his calving season. These early-born calves gain approximately 2 pounds per day and are heavier at weaning than calves born later in the season. With retained ownership of steers, he says AI steers are worth more at harvest due to heavier hot carcass weights and a higher percentage of Choice or better quality grades.
Over that year, the "return to cow" for AI-sired calves was $177 more than for calves sired by natural service, says Slusher. AI-sired steers averaged 38.6 pounds heavier on hot carcass weight. Slusher's AI conception rate is 68% (over a five-year period). He notes the conception rates improve as cows become conditioned to AI protocols.
"I can't imagine anyone being a full-time cattle farmer and not using AI," says Slusher. "AI breeding is a lot of work, but it pays off when you see calves sired by top bulls."
AI SCHOOL PAYOFF
When Brian Melloan took over Channarock Farms from his father-in-law, Charlie Jones, in 2014, the 38-year-old cattleman from Rockfield, Ky., headed straight for the AI School at Mississippi State University.
Channarock Farms has long been on the cutting edge for Beefmaster seedstock, and Melloan knew he wanted to use AI to freshen up the herd's genetics. He used semen from the country's top Beefmaster bulls.
The move was not without precedent. Jones had also relied on AI to build the Beefmaster herd on the family's western Kentucky ranch.
"I see AI as one of the key tools to keep us marching forward in the cattle business," says Melloan. "AI gives us the ability to use the best bulls of the breed to build up carcass quality and weight gains in our cattle."
Using the techniques and practices he learned at AI School, Melloan bred 175 cows from late 2014 to early 2015. His success rate was an outstanding 75%. He's looking forward to selling AI-sired bulls to commercial producers.
"The commercial cattleman is our No. 1 customer," says Melloan. "As producers restock herds, they want Beefmaster bulls that will put more pounds on calves at weaning and also have the genetics for carcass characteristics feedlot buyers are looking for."
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