Beef AI can pay
Capturing the value of artificial breeding from ranch to rail
By Natalie Jones
March 9, 2020
Most dairymen use a breeding technology also proven profitable for beef cattle enterprises, but no more than 10% of commercial cattlemen bother with it.
Why? Lack of facilities, labor, confidence and convenience lead the list of reasons artificial insemination (AI) hasn’t become commonplace on the ranch.
Idaho Extension Beef Cattle Specialist John Hall led producers to reexamine barriers and capitalize on the value of AI at last fall’s Range Beef Cow Symposium in Mitchell, Neb.
Developed more than 80 years ago, with frozen technology since 1945, AI has included sex-sorting options for a dozen years.
Rather than just turning bulls out for natural service and moving on to other ranch projects, Hall urged producers to consider the value they could capture with AI. That’s because consumers are calling for more high-quality beef, and the call must be answered.
“AI certainly gives us the opportunity to do that, because we can use those highly proven sires that have carcass information that we know are going to give us the kind of cattle the consumer wants,” Hall said.
But before going all-in with investments in synchronization and semen costs, technician fees and the labor associated with roundup and processing, he suggested making sure basic management is on track.
A successful AI season begins with heifers at a body condition score (BCS) of 6 and cows at BCS 5, after a closed and short calving season so that they can cycle back before insemination.
Costs and benefits
The average cost of a commercial bull is about $5,000, Hall said, and the cost of natural breeding continues to rise. That’s why few commercial producers buy above-average bulls for growth and carcass merit; they simply can’t afford their natural service, which Hall put at $90 to produce a live calf.
On a 300-cow herd and a 50% pregnancy rate, he said each AI calf would cost about $95. With a more typical preg rate at 55%, that AI calf is cheaper than the one from natural service. It also carries superior genetics from bulls in the top breed percentiles that most cannot afford for natural service.
The use of fixed-time AI helps keep labor costs down and can shift calving seasons earlier, with more born in the first 21 to 30 days. Calves in the first 21 days compared to three weeks later result in 35 to 50 pounds, but that’s mainly an advantage for feeder calf value, Hall said.
“What we normally see when using fixed-time AI,” he said, “we’ll pick up a 3 to 5 percentage-point increase in the number of cows pregnant at the end of the year, compared to natural service.”
Another opportunity is replacement heifers.
“You can capture a big advantage in the females created, because of their enormous value to a commercial operation,” Hall said. “You can breed a certain percentage of them to more maternal bulls to fit the environment that you work in.”
Beyond the cow-calf herd is the potential value capture at the feedyard and packinghouse.
“Taking calves all the way to harvest is arguably the best way to realize return on the AI investment,” Hall said. That’s because carcass traits are the most heritable and high-quality carcasses continue to command premiums that go straight back to producer pockets when they retain ownership.
Data from a 600-head Virginia operation retaining ownership on calves shows having both AI sire and AI-sired dam increased returns to each cow by 22%. It also increased the share of carcasses grading Choice by 38 percentage points compared to calves with no AI genetics.
“What we see is not only an increase in hot carcass weight, but we see an increase in marbling and therefore an increase in quality grade,” Hall said.
Calves sired by high carcass-merit sires have proven greater feed efficiency and growth rate, which adds up to smaller feed bills, he said, “or you’ll receive greater returns for the cost of feed you put in them.”
Greater feed efficiency, higher marbling and higher quality grade score wins for cattlemen and consumers.
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