Artificial insemination (AI) has been a tool available to beef producers for decades. AI offers a way to access proven genetics that otherwise would be unavailable or unaffordable for the average commercial producer. While the genetic advantages to using AI in beef cattle are well known, the rate of use across the country remains very low. According to recent USDA data about 5% of cows and 16% of heifers in the US beef herd are bred artificially.
A long-held perception that has helped keep that adoption rate low has been that AI is too expensive and difficult compared to using natural service. For a lot of operations that perception was probably correct. The labor required to heat detect a set of cows or heifers made an AI program impractical for many operations. In the minds of most producers the simplicity and lower expenses of turning out herd sires out-weighed the advantages of using proven, higher performing genetics through AI.
Sometimes we need to re-evaluate our assumptions as conditions change. One of those changes has been estrous synchronization protocols that make fixed time AI feasible. Fixed time AI eliminates the need for heat detection while still resulting in 50 to 60% conception rates. Depending on the cost of the semen ordered and the exact protocol used, total costs to AI a cow or heifer including all supplies and labor would run about $45 to $50 per head. That would result in a cost per pregnancy of about $90 to $100 if the conception rate was 50% or as low as $75 to $83 if we could get 60% to conceive.
Another change that we’re seeing in the industry today is that bulls are worth considerably more money than in previous years. It’s not uncommon to see commercial cattlemen investing $6000 or more for a yearling bull. At those prices, what does that bull cost per calf? The table below tells us the bull cost per calf depending on bull prices and longevity. The table assumes that it costs us $700 per year to maintain a bull, each bull sires 25 calves per year, and that he has a salvage value of $1800 when he’s culled.
One thing that sticks out in that table is the importance of bull longevity. The cost per calf for a bull that only gets used for a couple years is dramatically higher than a bull that we can spread the purchase price out over many more calves. The same is true for herds that can utilize a bull for both a spring and a fall herd. The table assumes only one season per year, a second breeding season lets us reduce that cost by getting twice the use out of the bull.
The second point is that using high accuracy sires through AI is not dramatically more expensive than purchasing unproven yearling bulls, in some cases less expensive per calf born. We also haven’t made any assumption about potential changes in calf survival because of using proven calving ease genetics, or to any potential productivity and performance advantages in the calves or replacement females.
Another consideration is the ability to rapidly introduce new genetics in a herd with AI. There’s an incentive to keep bulls as long as possible when using natural service to spread those costs out over as many calves as possible. In some cases that means continuing to use bull that lags behind from a genetics standpoint. With AI a rancher can take advantage of the latest proven genetics at essentially the same costs every year.