Artificial insemination advances help commercial breeders improve genetics
Many advances in artificial insemination (AI) technology and heat synchronization have increased conception rates over the past few decades, and research is continuing to make progress in AI protocols helping commercial producers. Improvements in tools enable more cows to conceive with AI breeding, enhancing ranchers’ breeding goals, while improving efficiency and profitability in the beef industry.
Heat synchronization protocol
Dan Busch, Select Sires MidAmerica, did his undergraduate work and master’s degree at University of Missouri (MU), working with Beef Production Specialist Dr. Jordan Thomas. Busch has stayed in touch with the research there.
“They developed the new seven and seven heat synchronization protocol which has increased pregnancy rates another 10 or 11 percent, and this program has been used in the field and it’s seeing good results,” said Busch. “For this to work, cowherds must be well-managed. It won’t solve all problems but is a tool which can help achieve a little higher pregnancy rate.”
This works best if a producer has already been doing AI and heat synchronization for several years and already has the cows grouped a little tighter in a calving/breeding season.
Producer feedback on this new protocol has been good.
“They are seeing very good estrus response, and pregnancy rates are better than the average of what they typically saw with the old synch programs,” said Busch.
There are also many genetic tools ranchers can use today. Combined with better AI performance, these can move a cowherd more quickly in the right direction.
“These tools are now available for commercial and purebred operations. When looking at growth and carcass traits, these new tools are good predictors on the performance side. In a commercial cowherd, however, fertility is still the main driver of profitability. Producers have to first have a calf,” he explained.
“There is genetic technology available to test for fertility, though the heritability of reproductive traits is low. There are tools available enabling producers to select a little for fertility, but a lot of it comes down to overall herd management. This includes selection for females to breed early in the breeding season or settle to the AI breeding – rather than later to the cleanup bulls, and retaining females out of those early-breeding cows,” said Busch.
“To me, this all comes down to management more than use of a genetic indicator or genetic technology, at least at this point. There may be some new technologies in the future to change this, but right now I feel good management of the cowherd is the most important key,” he said.
It takes management to make genetic tools work.
“Thomas sent me a presentation he put together looking at what he calls the snowball effect of selecting for reproduction – selecting females breeding in the first 21 days versus the females breeding in the second 21 days of the season,” shared Busch.
This enables a rancher to capitalize on the heritability of fertility. Even though this trait is not highly heritable, it is heritable enough to take advantage of and greatly improve the fertility of cows over time.
Some producers and AI reps wonder if the beef industry has been pushing performance and carcass too much in the last few years – sacrificing on the cow side and fertility.
“We need to find the right balance – to maximize performance and carcass but still have females breed back successfully in a short time frame and give us a more fertile cowherd,” he said.
These new AI tools can help producers move in this direction.
“Synchronization and AI help achieve this, but if producers can have the desired genetic traits come along with this, we can continue to improve on both sides,” he continued.
It is a work in progress. There is no perfect cow or cowherd, and producers are always working at making them better.
Making the best decision using EPDs
The breeding decisions producers make today on bull and cow selections are important, because these are the things the industry will have to live with for the next 10 years. With the daughters produced from a bull, producers may not know for several years if they will be what they wanted.
“In the Angus breed they have the heifer pregnancy expected progeny difference (EPD), which is a good tool, but it takes a while. Once a bull gets to be seven or eight and has daughters in production, this is when we know whether the EPD was correct or not when he was young,” said Busch.
The nice thing about technology today – with frozen semen, it can be utilized later. Producers can still use the genetics from some of those better, proven bulls even after they are gone, after producers know they are good ones, if a person had the foresight to collect a lot of semen.
The tools and technology for better beef production and better cowherds have come a long way in the past few decades.
“With sex-sorted semen, producers now have the opportunity to make even better use of some of those older bulls if they are still around and have good semen quality. We can produce a sex-sorted product and make more heifers, if that’s our goal,” he noted.
At this point in time, the seven and seven protocol from MU is the newest helpful technology, though there has also been some work at Texas A&M.
“They’ve done something similar to the seven and seven, except they don’t put the controlled internal drug release in early. They have seen some improvement in pregnancy rate also, but not quite as much as we’ve been seeing with the seven and seven protocol,” said Busch.
Thomas has done a lot of sexed semen trials as well, trying to improve this process. Getting as many pregnancies as with regular semen is still the big challenge.
“There is enough variability among bulls, but it is still difficult; some bulls work well for this and some not so well, for a sex-sorted product,” added Busch. “When young beef bulls come in a fertility evaluation is done. Once the semen is collected, their sexed semen can be sent to large dairy herds to create male calves from a certain percentage of their dairy cows.”
The top dairy cows are bred to dairy bulls to produce replacement dairy heifers, but the other cows can be bred with beef semen to create calves worth more to go into a feedlot.
“By using young, unproven beef bulls for this and breeding high numbers of cows, within two months producers know what the fertility of the semen is, compared to proven bulls. This is one of the advantages of the beef-on-dairy breeding,” he continued.
This also opens up a whole new market for seedstock producers to send semen to dairies wanting to utilize this kind of program.
“This is driving a lot of semen sales. When looking at sale reports, producers are buying high-producing bulls for beef-on-dairy purposes,” Busch said.
A bull calf from a dairy cow is worth a lot more if sired by a beef bull. With sexed semen, the dairies are already generating enough females and want the rest of their calves to be worth more than the traditional day-old male dairy calf.
“I work with a herd of 5,000 dairy cows, and in this herd, they are using only 40 percent dairy semen and about 60 percent beef semen. Roughly 30 percent is sex-sorted heifer semen and most of the rest is sex-sorted male semen. They generate more money with those beef-cross calves,” he noted.
There is a lot of opportunity for use of sex-sorted semen in the commercial beef industry as well.
“We can select which cows producers use sex-sorted semen on to generate replacement heifers and use a terminal cross on the rest of the herd to have more pounds of steers to sell,” shared Busch. “There are many ways to use these new tools today.”
Heather Smith Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.