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Things to consider: natural service versus AI

by Wyoming Livestock Roundup

With the record-high bull sale averages reported across Wyoming this winter, some producers are considering whether implementing a full or partial AI program would be a more cost-effective alternative. Willie Altenburg of Genex explains what producers need to think about when making the switch.
“Costs are one thing. We get close when you compare a $3,000 bull to AI synchronization projects. Sometimes the bull beats AI, and sometimes AI beats the bull on cost. Ultimately, you still have to have the bull for cleanup. We never completely displace the bull with AI.
“One thing producers always bring up in discussions about AI is the genetic benefit that can be obtained through AI. The improvement of genetics, and being able to use highly proven bulls for calving ease, or improved growth, is something that is a big benefit. There is access to proven bulls through AI that ranchers can’t access with natural service,” says Altenburg.
He adds that these improvements are often more intangible, and therefore harder to record in a spreadsheet format.
“How do you measure the impact of calving ease? Do you save eight or 10 percent more calves? What is a replacement heifer worth? What about if she has six more calves over her productive lifetime with those genetics? It’s hard to put dollar amounts on those traits, but they’re a very important benefit of an AI program,” says Altenburg.
He lists utilizing professional help as another thing to consider when looking at an AI program.
“This area has really changed. Twenty years ago I told producers to go to AI school and do it themselves. They were breeding five to 10 cows a day for two weeks back then. Today we want everything bred and done in one to three days.
“It’s still good to go to AI school and learn about synchronization, and the different systems, but anymore I recommend getting a professional tech to come in and help. If you’re going to breed 100 heifers in three days, I don’t think many producers have the arm, or the confidence in his arm and technique, to do that once a year,” comments Altenburg.
He adds that professional technicians often bring their own breeding barn. They also meet with producers, work out breeding cut-off dates and ensure everything gets bred on the heavy days, in addition to helping ranchers choose an AI system that works best for their situation.
“We’ve got a lot of systems for both cows and heifers that work really well today. You can heat detect, use fixed time breeding, and they’re all pretty concise,” says Altenburg.
Of the resulting effect of synchronizing females, Altenburg says the benefits can be long lasting.
“Say your system results in 65 percent breeding during the first cycle. They will spread out plus or minus 10 days the following calving season, with a peak in the middle. Everyone won’t calve on the same day, but it will move them up earlier in the calving season, so their calves will weigh more at weaning, and those cows will have more days post-partum to re-breed.
“Those that didn’t breed during the first cycle will come back into heat between 17 and 22 days. They will spread out on their repeat heats after you turn the bull out,” notes Altenburg.    
“It does take a commitment on the producer’s part. If he doesn’t have that commitment to improving his genetics, it doesn’t work. If there’s the desire to make AI work, it will,” notes Altenburg.
Heather Hamilton is editor of the Wyoming Livestock Roundup and can be reached at

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