AI offers a big opportunity for suckler producers

Hundreds of producers could be missing out on superior genetics, according to a recent EBLEX survey

Only one in seven suckler herds uses artificial insemination (AI) on farm, and only three use AI exclusively, research undertaken by EBLEX shows.

The decision about whether to use AI in a beef production system is an important one and it will not necessarily suit all producers,” says Liz Genever, beef and sheep scientist, EBLEX Beef Better Returns Programme. “AI is an opportunity to access bulls with superior genetics, which can increase herd performance over a wide range of traits including growth rates and carcass classes.

“The flexibility in breed choice with AI means that a cross-breeding programme can be implemented without increased bull costs, and allows producers to match bulls to their specific requirements. For example, replacements can be bred from specific cows by a bull with traits that will complement them, like calving ease. It is also worth considering the cost of keeping a bull year – about £1000 a year – versus the cost of AI. Another benefit of using AI is the reduced risk of spreading disease from bringing bulls into the herd.”

Some of the reasons producers do not use AI include: Insufficient labour to ensure oestrous detection/handling of cows before insemination the belief that AI is expensive expectation of poor conception rates lack of access to handling facilities and the belief that AI bulls are inferior to existing stock bulls.

The survey also revealed an interesting spread among breeds (see table), with Aberdeen Angus being the most popular, used in four out of 10 herds. Neil Wharton, Beef BRP steering group member, believes this is due to AI being used on heifers for easy calving.

“The main reasons AI is used in the suckler herd is for easy calving on heifers, breeding suckler replacements, or introducing elite genetics into the pedigree herd.” A successful AI programme can have the knock-on benefit of tightening the calving period, as cows and heifers can be synchronised to make AI more efficient.

Richard Grigg

Since his father first introduced AI on to the farm many years ago, Richard Grigg (pictured) has continued to see the benefit of bringing top genetics into his 100-cow suckler herd at Launceston. The family use a variety of bulls – Aberdeen-Angus, Simmental, British Blue and Stablisers – along with estimated breeding values (EBVs) to match semen choice to herd objectives, paying particular attention to ease of calving.

Richard finishes all his stock, so growth rates and carcass traits are equally important. He selects his replacements from the best of his heifers. He has one sweeper bull, which is also used on his heifers.

He and his son Martin decided to go on a course on DIY AI, so the process could be more cost-effective. They house batches of 25 cows, according to their calving date, which makes heat detection and AI simpler, without the need for synchronisation.

“I would never go back to natural service now,” says Richard. “The cost of buying the quality of bulls that I use through AI would make it a very expensive choice. I would need two bulls, which would probably set me back about £8000-£10,000 each.”

Breed of bulls used for

AI in the survey herds

 Breed of bulls Number of straws     %
 Aberdeen Angus  259 39
 Blonde d’Aquitaine  2 0
 Belgian Blue  57 9
 Charolais  24 4
 Hereford  3 0
 Limousin  230 34
 Simmental  47 7
 South Devon  20 3
 Stabiliser  21 3
 Other  5 1

Total straws 668


EBLEX Beef BRP AI management guidelines

Breeding objectives need to be established to ensure bulls selected for AI can target weaknesses in individual cows and improve traits over the entire herd. To use AI successfully, high standards of management are needed, such as accurate record keeping, well-designed handling facilities and accurate heat detection.

Detailed reproductive records for each cow should include:

  • Age
  • Number of calves
  • Previous calving problems
  • Latest calving date
  • Date of first and subsequent post-calving heat
  • Length of oestrous cycle

A well-designed and built handling system will save time and reduce stress that can lead to a reduction in conception rates

Heat detection requires careful observation of the cow herd three or four times a day, with each observation period lasting at least 20 minutes

It is important to monitor cows after insemination to see if they come back into heat and to know if further AI is needed. Pregnancy rates on first breeding cycle can be below 65%, regardless of using AI or natural service.