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Archive for Artificial Insemination

“She’s pregnant!” Those are very welcome words for breeders to hear at pregnancy check time. The ideal is that the pregnancy occurs after one A.I. service in the time period 70 to 100 days in milk, while the cow is producing high volumes of milk, fat and protein. In a perfect world that single A.I. heifer service should occur between 12 and 14 months of age.  Getting to that success depends on many factors, not the least of which is the skill of the inseminator.

Do What you Know or Use a Pro?

It takes a wide range of skills to successfully run a dairy operation at a level that is both sustainable and profitable.  Professional A.I. technicians recognize that many breeders rise to the challenge of taking on this most vital aspect of their dairy business. They realize that many breeders want complete control of the reproduction program on their farm. Dr. Hernando Lopez, Global Technical Service Director for Genus ABS acknowledges that control is important and sums up the breeder perspective saying, “They believe that they can inseminate successfully themselves’. Dr. Ray Nebel, Senior Reproductive Specialist for Select Sires, outlines further reasons that breeders give for doing their own artificial insemination. “They want the flexibility of when to breed. They prefer having semen available from several different A.I. organizations in their farm tank and being able to change the mating right up to the last minute”.  Of course, both Dr. Lopez and Dr.Nebel are aware that cost is one of the strongest motivating factors in choosing who inseminates the cows.

Times have Changed

Thirty years ago there were many more dairy herds and most of them had less than 50 milking cows. Shorter travel distances and labor costs per cow bred by the technician were much lower than today. In that scenario, with only two or three breedings per week, breeders could not become proficient at inseminating. However, with the current average herd size in the US being 187 milking cows, with many miles between herds and with breeders focused on costs, they often choose D.I.Y. artificial insemination for expedience and cost reasons.

Is D.I.Y Really Cheaper?

The monthly bill for technician supplied A.I. needs to subdivided into semen costs and costs for technician services. It’s easy to quote the professional technician’s bill for arm service but expenses must also be pencilled in for the D.I.Y. tech on the farm and for all the costs leading up to the actual insemination.

Remember there is a labor cost for heat detection, including the checking of cows bred 21 days previously. There are additional time related expenses as well.  Time to check computer records or activity monitors. Time to check with all staff members for heats others may have seen. Time to call in for service and time to enter breeding information into the herd records.  Furthermore for on-farm staff there are costs associated with social security tax, insurance, workers compensation, sick time and other benefits that owners must provide.  These time and employment costs are not usually quickly remembered and easily quoted when we sum up the costs of getting cows and heifers in calf. Add in gloves, rods, training and re-training, semen tank purchase and semen tank maintenance and you are getting closer to the true total cost for A.I. Although, at first glance, D.I.Y. seems cost effective and faster, the real question in every dairy manager’s mind should be, “What is the return on the investment?”

Think about it.  In a herd of 200 milking cows, it may take a farm employee up to half their time to monitor animals and carry out other aspects of the herd’s reproduction. Some owners take the next step and assign the farm’s repro staff member to the job of doing the breeding. On the surface it sounds like a cost savings but who covers on days-off? What happens when the farm breeding person is needed elsewhere and he/she does not do all the daily reproduction duties including checking for heats? Only seeing 70% of the heats can soon become a major negative factor for the farm’s bottom line. Missed heats result in more days open, lower daily herd average milk production, more non-productive days in the dry pens and an age at first calving of 26 instead of 22-24 months. Add to this the fact that the on-farm inseminator must be trained and monitored and will need to spend time on skills upgrading and, very quickly, the savings from do-it-yourself insemination are rapidly disappearing.

A.I. Results: Are You Getting Professional or Passable?

Of course, if your pregnancy rate is 23+% and you are meeting or exceeding all your established targets, you can stop reading now.  However, if your results are not at that level, working with a professional technician could be a discerning business decision for you to consider.

Times have changed from when the only service offered by the technician was insemination. Today organizations providing A.I. tech services wish to provide their customers with a full range of services.  Both Lopez and Nebel emphasize that the professional technician becomes part of the on-farm production team, where the goal is to achieve a high pregnancy rate as part of a complete reproduction program.

Dr. Nebel notes that “Herds have gotten bigger, days on the farm have become more demanding, milk per cow has increased and more cows are housed in confinement than they were twenty years ago. These are all challenges when it comes to getting cattle pregnant.” Dr. Lopez also outlines how change is affecting dairy breeding. “Today there is more focus on cow welfare, cow comfort, the successful integration of reproductive technologies like synchronization and heat detection aids and the handling and compliance for large groups of cows. Today successful breeding goes beyond the proper insemination technique. It requires all aspects of dairy management to be correctly working and their needs to be great teamwork.” When breeders work with profession A.I. companies they have access to complete reproduction services including: full cow side services including, walk, chalk, synchronization and insemination’ data entry into herd management software including report generation; management of automated activity and heat detection systems and reproductive consultation.

With all of this potential information and support, one wonders why more breeders not asking for competitive bids from companies that provided genetic and reproductive services to dairy farms.

When it comes to pregnancy rate, whether you are your own professional or hire a professional, you can’t afford less than professional results.

Jack of All Trades or Master of Pregnancy?

Professional technicians employed by A.I. companies breed between 5,000 and 20,000 animals per year. They are continually being monitored for their performance.  As new techniques become available they receive training. Their only focus is on getting animals pregnant. Their livelihood depends of delivering top notch service. Dr. Lopez provides this very sound advice: “Most operations can economically benefit from outsourcing breeding or a total reproductive service to a professional technician not only because of the superior consistent results but also due to all the technical support and resources producers have access to through the professional breeding services”.

The Bullvine Bottom Line

Every aspect of dairy farming needs to be penciled out as to cost and return on investment. Every breeder has an area of dairy farming that they like best and do to a professional level.  In the end, A.I. breeding is all about fewer breedings, less semen used, more pregnancies, fewer reproductive culls and the best use of time and services. There is too much at stake to be a jack of all insemination trades and master of none.

Breeders need to be totally objective about every step from heat detection to confirmed conception.  If you agree that insemination is all about the results, then ask yourself two questions, “How important is an excellent A.I. program?” and “Who performs artificial insemination best?”



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Natural Breeding – Could It Work For You?

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

The Bullvine has received the following question from readers – “Why does The Bullvine always talk about using AI and never refer to or talk about using natural sires?” After doing some research on natural use bulls, we decided to share our findings in story format.  We often list statistics and science, but we would like to present something closer to real life in order that other, like minded, producers can evaluate a possible scenario and consider it for their own operations.

Here’s The Scenario

“A couple runs, as they call it, a milk production factory of 400 (2x) milking cows. They have found that, for best results, they should have their four key (human) employees putting their focus on cow care. That means focusing on the close-up and fresh pens, feed mixing, caring for calves that are less than a month old and attending to cows that are sick. The remainder of their staff are mostly part-time and involved in milking, pushing up feed, moving animals, bedding, cleaning up and manure handling. The husband manages the operation and the wife manages the records when they are not skiing or spending time with their family of five very active high school and college students. A few years back they were having trouble catching cows in heat and the fallout from that was that they had too many late lactation cows, had too much non-producing time spent in dry pens and there were heifers calving over conditioned at 27.5 months of age. This meant not enough profit or ROI.  Their milking cow pregnancy rate was 9%, 4.1 pounds of fat plus protein were being shipped per cow per day and the cull rate was 40%. They needed to keep every heifer calf born on the farm for herd replacements. They knew drastic action was needed. So they went to focusing their attention on the most problematic areas and on using natural bulls for breeding both the heifers and the cows.

(CHECK THIS) The husband clearly understood that the system of using herd bulls instead of A.I., is not for every dairy farm, especially not for herds that do not have facilities that are bull strong, bull safe and where only one person is involved when groups are being moved or worked with in their pens.

How to Hire a Working Bull

For several years in the representative scenario, prior to the change to natural bulls, they had used 50% young sire semen. The main selection criteria had been NM$ (>$500) with the added requirement of +1.0 for both UDC and FLC. They wanted a blend price for semen of less than $20. The cattle were registered in the national herdbook so the DHI records could be used in sire proving. Numerous different staff were trained in A.I. but the results were just not there, even though they routinely used an off-sync program. Heat detection and breeding was a drag and it sapped energy from everyone.

The change to natural bulls occurred after the introduction of genomic indexes to the dairy industry. They found there were many high quality genomically tested bulls, that did not make it into A.I., that were available at a reasonable price. They have required that the young bulls, generally purchased at 9-12 months of age, are above average for size and have good feet and legs but cow families have not been considered when purchasing. They are now milking daughters of their first genomically tested bulls and find that they are, on average, quite superior to what their young sire daughters were in the past.

Their current requirements for their bulls are: NM$ >$650; FLC >+1.5; UDC >+1.5; and SCS < 2.90. But from here on they will also be requiring a positive number for DPR and >3.0 for PL.  Additionally under consideration are ways to avoid inbreeding, increasing protein percent, using only polled bulls and, if they could get it, some way of knowing the growth rate and body condition score. Definitely sons of sharp chinned, deep ribbed show cows are avoided. The reason for a higher protein percent is because the milk is shipped to a local specialty cheese factory which pays an incentive for protein content.

Cow Performance under Natural Breeding Scenario

The time formerly spent checking for and breeding cows and heifers in heat is now focused on close-up, calving and just fresh pens. These groups are housed close to the milking parlour and can be easily seen from the staff room and the office. All staff are encouraged to watch and make sure cows in these pens are getting up and eating. Temperatures are taken and recorded, twice a day, for the first three days after calving and before moving into the voluntary waiting pens. There are no bulls in these pens so staff can safely check a cow at any time.

Improvements obtained were in the magnitude of

  • average production 5.3 pounds of fat + protein per cow per day,
  • cow pregnancy rate from 22-24%,
  • cow cull rate 25% and
  • heifers calving at 22-23 months of age

Cows are grouped by staged of lactation or pregnancy. First calf heifers are housed separate from mature cows in close-up, voluntary waiting and breeding stages. Maximum group size, when cows are 150 – 300 days in milk, is 80 cows. Parlour size accommodates twenty and they like cows back to their pen within one hour.  Breeding pens are kept to 40 cows so that only one bull is needed per pen. Herd management software data is used and the movement of cows and bulls in and out of pens is recorded. All cows seen to be in standing heat are recorded but less than 50% of the actual heats are observed by staff. A milk weight is taken every Wednesday morning. Fresh cows are continually added to the fresh pens and stay there 3- 10 days. Otherwise any movement between pens takes place on Thursday after the morning milking. One staff member monitors on Thursdays for any bullying or fighting. The plan is to purchase ultrasound equipment and have two people trained to use it for pregnancy checking.

The Beef Enterprise Revenue Stream

An expanded version of the scenario sees the wife’s family owning and operating a small slaughter and retail beef business, specializing in marketing and selling lean beef that guarantees to its customers that all animals can be traced and for which there are no drug residues.

The dairy farm supplies animals to that beef processing business. As a result all calves are raised on the farm. Males calves are castrated and marketed when 1400 pounds. Heifers with poor feet and legs or not in calf by 14 months are finished for beef. Only about 60% of the heifers are raised for dairy purposes, as it costs more to raise them than they being when sold as a springing heifer or fresh first lactation cow. Young (<50 months) cows that have problem udders or feet and legs or that are not in calf are also marketed through that business. Settlement for their animals is on a weight and rail grade basis. All other animals are sold through an auction mart.

Where the beef side of the farm was once only a by-product, it now forms a significant revenue stream. It has meant that they want Holstein bulls that produce progeny that carry more condition and, therefore, go to slaughter at a relatively young age.

Other Specifics

Most details about the operation are unchanged when the farm converted to using natural bulls.  Bulls upon arrival are kept in isolation at a neighbor’s small barn that they rent. Bulls must be negative for TB, Brucellosis, Anaplasmosis and Johnes. Bulls not in use are housed in individual pens. As mentioned previously any pens with a bull in it must have two people present for movement or entry into the pen. Bulls slipping and injuring themselves during mounting has not been a problem. If and when herd expansion occurs, they are planning to use manure pack barns for the breeding pens. The bulls travel with their pen to, through and back from the milking parlour.

The farm in this scenario definitely benefits financially from less labour spent heat checking and breeding, from a younger age at first calving, from fewer days in the dry pens, and from more production per day. It must be stressed that, without genomics and 65% accuracy for the major indexes, they would not have been able to achieve the high percentage of high quality animals. All changes combined have helped them double their annual net returns from the milk sales side of their business.  This scenario strongly recommends not attempting natural breeding with bulls that only have a parent average index or much worse still have no known parental information.

Although this is a composite scenario, farmers moving to natural sires can expect to find that bull buying and maintenance expenses were balanced by  previous expenses for semen, labor for heat checking and breeding, vet checks and drugs. The higher production per day and the fewer non-productive days for both heifers and cows (without an increase in labor costs) are the profit makers.”

The Bullvine Bottom Line

The Bullvine thanks our readers who have drawn our attention to this area of dairy operation management. Using natural bulls instead of A.I. is not for every dairy farm. Definitely it does not assist with sire proving by A.I. companies. However, it can allow for labor to be focused away from reproduction and more on that critical 2-3 weeks before calving and 3-4 weeks after calving.  The Bottom Line? If designed and operated properly natural sire use can return a greater net profit and that’s a scenario we can all relate to!


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When you’re looking for money on your dairy farm, pregnant is where it’s at!  The person, team or tools responsible for success in this area, rank up there with the best investments you will ever make.  What is it worth?  A lot!  The Bullvine did some CSI investigation – Cow Scene Investigation into the numbers.

measure up preg rates

Face the Facts. Who’s to Blame?

According to researchers at the University of Wisconsin, 96 percent of the variation in conception rate comes from management factors.  Only the last 4 percent is related to the individual cow and service bull’s genetics.

Less is More $$$

Even though we are looking for more there are four lesser values that will help us make those dollars:  fewer non-productive cow and heifer days; fewer breedings and therefore less semen used; fewer vet expenses and, last but not least, less labor for observing, caring and feeding.

These four will make you big money.  And, one more, in fifth place that may be hard to get your head around. You may have to be willing to sacrifice 2 to 5 pounds of milk per day for the sake of reproduction. It appears to be on the negative side of the ledger because of the immediate reduction in the milk check.  However, the other savings could far outweigh this apparent deficit.  Don’t forget more calves are born and there is less culling of non-pregnant cows and heifers.

If you require more incentive, one anecdotal story reports on a herd that has a 25% pregnancy rate and the breeder projects that “over the next seven years I can double the size of my herd through internal growth alone.”

Where Has All Your Money Gone?

$- A missed heat cycle can cost as much as $29

$$- A missed pregnancy costs an average of $450

$$$ – Further economic analysis shows that each percentage point increase in pregnancy rate is equal to a saving of $35 per cow per year. So going from the average pregnancy rate of 14% to the top of 22% there is a savings of $280. It is entirely possible that considering all factors and both cows and heifers that a farm of 250 cows could save $75,000 which is $300 per cow per year.


At these levels of return, it’s easy to see how improving your reproductive performance pays off.  If you save $75,000 or even $50,000 (2/3 savings), you could hire an employee dedicated only to reproduction protocols and improvements.

When DIM is delayed because cows do not become pregnant on time, it’s not unusual to see a reduction of 10 pounds of milk of more per cow per day. This too adds up quickly.  This milk is not down the drain.  It never even made it to the bucket!

Take Advantage of Your Team

There are many experts who can bring something to your team:  A.I. staff, veterinarians, nutritionists, extension workers and other breeders. With these consultants don’t shy away from mistakes.  Once you know and admit where the problem is, you are half way to solving it. Once the problems are identified you have the opportunity to put solutions in place and make more money.

Invest in Cow Catchers

Heat detection is the easiest of the parameters to influence with training and management attention. The lower your current reproduction record is, the larger opportunity you have to improve it. One hour per week invested in training (i.e. heat detections) at $10 an hour will recover a tenfold or higher return from improved reproductive performance over a year.  Make sure the eyes on your cows know how to find cows in estrus.  Upgrade staff skill sets for managing reproduction and breeding for a pregnancy. Take a course or have staff take a refresher in insemination techniques.  Spend a little to save or make a lot.

Genetics is Where Every Little Bit Counts!

Although genetics only accounts for 5 to 10% of reproductive performance there are opportunities to improve here as well.

  1. Use higher conception semen
  2. Use semen with more sperm per dose
  3. If available, use semen that has a longer viability after insemination
  4. Only use sires that have 107+ Daughter Fertility or DPR 1.2+
  5. Avoid bulls that are over 2.85 SCS, cows more susceptible to mastitis do not conceive easily.

Step Up Your Game. Get off to a Good Start

  • Increase observations and monitoring (at least 3x per 24 hours)
  • Increase observations of bred animals until they are confirmed pregnant
  • Maintain accurate and complete records for access by all staff
  • Pregnancy check between 28 and 35 days post breeding
  • Cull any female that requires a 4th service

Take Advantage of Cash Cow Tools

  • Use a synchronization program for cows or heifers for which a heat is not seen
  • Use the reproduction part of your herd management software. Examples: REPRO MONEY is free of charge to Wisconsin dairy producers and is expanding to additional states in the future.  Other states, milk recording agencies and universities have similar programs.
  • Use activity monitors for loose housed animals
  • Investigate using transition cow and rumination software programs.


You can’t reverse financial challenges such as high feed prices and items beyond your control. However improving poor reproduction is your responsibility.  Getting it right will significantly drive your profitability at the best of times and see you through the challenging ones!



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