How does the cost of AI compare to natural service?

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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.

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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.

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April, 16, 2012 at 08:37 PM

How many times have you as the author done the this. We have been doing this for years and we can never get the conception rate that ai service companies say. I am currently doing 2400 heifers with ai service with a name brand company and offered them services paid on conception with their choice of sonogram checked pregnancy. I have yet to see a company ai on a conception rate. If you want to quote all the data then you have to back it up. Mike Fuller

ND  |  April, 16, 2012 at 09:25 PM

Mike-what type of program are you using? MGA, CIDRs? Are they heifers or cows? We have had the best conception rates on heifers by using MGA and heat detection versus fixed time AI. There are so many variables that go into the conception rate, that it is difficult to pinpoint what is causing the poor conception rates.

Indiana  |  April, 17, 2012 at 09:48 AM

Mike you have a point about conception rates. I have been AI ing for 22 years and only have had 60% four or five times. However, the costs associated with AI have other benefits. I do NOT consider synchronization a cost of AI, only an enhancement. The cost of synchronization is more than paid for by a heavier calf at weaning because he was born earlier in the calving season. The heifers that you get by AI are going to be clearly better and will return more to the herd long term. Also how many times have you bought a bull that was NOT what you wanted? Expensive mistake! With AI if a mistake is made you don't own him. I have made mistakes AI but they don't get to bring down future genetics of the herd because they become terminal progeny. Also ultrasound data of conception rates is NOT going to be birth rate to AI. I have done extensive research with a large AI stud and have tested every synch program for them. We could consistently get 60% pregnant AI but birth rate AI was not that i.e., abortions and resorbing of fetuses. Hang in there after 3 generations of AI on top of AI we are really enjoying the benefits of superior genetics.

MI  |  April, 17, 2012 at 11:59 AM

I think you could aruge that a bull could settle 35 calves instead of 25, which would significantly lower the cost per calf. If my cow herd was large enough; I'd love to sync and AI for the first heat with Sexed semen for rep heifers and then turnout with a clean-up bulls for market calves and get the best of both worlds

Warren Rusche    
Watertown, SD  |  April, 17, 2012 at 04:58 PM

Thank you for the interest and discussion. There have been some good points brought up that I'd like to try to address. Mike's point about pregnancy rates is well taken. Not every synchonization and AI project achieves the same results which obviously affects the cost per pregnancy. John also brings up a good point that in some cases there could be more calves sired by an individual bull in a year, which would reduce the natural service costs. The same could be said about a bull that lasts longer than five years. We can also probably think of instances where we've had much worse results with using bulls whether that's due to death, injury, poor libido, etc. My point wasn't necessarily to present these numbers as the absolute last word, but rather to spur some thought and discussion. I do think that we can all agree that the question of "What costs more, AI or natural service?" doesn't have a one-size-fits-all answer. Thank you for reading this article, if you'd like to further this conversation feel free to email me at

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