Thinking about using A.I. for your herd? Whether you have one cow or quite a few, A.I. has some distinct advantages over running a bull and a few drawbacks that you need to know about before you decide how to breed your herd this year.
So, should you try A.I. this year, or is it more complicated option than you are wanting to sort out? We’ll go over the things you need to know to decide if using A.I. is the right choice for your farm.
Artificial Insemination (A.I.) in cattle is performed by an A.I. technician when the cow is in standing heat. Cattle come into heat year round and your cow, if the insemination is successful, will calve 9 months after breeding.
You should know that most folks with dairy cattle, breed A.I. as needed, per cow. Most folks with more than a few beef cattle would be synchronizing the herd and breeding all females on the same day or using a bull.
Is Raising Your Own Beef Worth It? will go over the costs you should consider when raising beef for your freezer.
A.I. in cattle is not complicated
First off, cattle A.I. is not complicated, no need to worry there. We have used A.I. for years and it works great. A.I. gives us access to all manner of bulls nationwide, not to mention no longer buying, looking after and feeding a bull.
However, A.I. is not all roses. For some folks, it does not work well. If your cattle management is lacking, in nutrition or animal observation time, getting your cattle to settle when using insemination is going to be harder.
My husband does our A.I. work and has a really high success rate, but these are our cattle and we spend time with them, not a ton of time, but some, so we can get the timing right.
How To Care For Your New Herd Of Beef Cattle will go over the plans you need to have in place to keep your cattle healthy and productive.
For anyone completely new to artificial insemination (A.I.) in cattle, here are the basics.
Cows come into heat every 21 days
Your cow should be coming into heat every 21 days. Mark your calendar! Keep track of her heat cycles before you need to get her bred back so you can plan ahead and make sure you are breeding for the calving time you want.
If you have multiple cattle, it will be easier to tell one in heat. Even cattle of different ages and even if one (or more) of them is a steer, if the steer is with the cow, it will make standing heat more obvious to you.
You need to know when your cow is in standing heat
Once you know what you are looking for, you can tell when your cow is in standing heat, even if she is by herself. But it is easier with multiple cattle, they’ll ride each other and make the situation easy to see.
For anyone who is completely new to cattle, the cows will ride each other when one of them is in standing heat. This is completely normal to your cattle, even though it looks pretty crazy to us!
If one cow is riding another, the cow on the bottom is in standing heat. This is important!
The cow on the top is either coming in or going out of standing heat, so she should be watched closely but the one you are looking for is on the bottom.
That’s why it’s called “standing heat” because the cow being ridden is standing for the bull, even though in this case there is no bull around!
When you call the A.I. tech, he will ask if your cow is “standing”, this is what he means. Not just acting weird, actually standing. Note the time you saw her standing, it matters as far as when the tech comes to breed her.
Calf will be born 9 months after cow is bred
9 months after your cow is bred the calf will be born. How’s the weather in 9 months from now at your place? Good or crazy cold? Plenty of grass around for the new mom or not?
This is the stuff you need to think about when you are getting your cow bred.
I know it’s hard to wait for a calf and even harder to wait if 9 months from now is bad calving weather, but unless you are willing to be out there, don’t breed the cow. Wait a few heat cycles for better weather.
Plan the A.I. date to go with a good calving time for your area
Plan an A.I. breeding date that will result in the calf being born at a good time for your area.
If you are hoping for a spring born calf, you’ll need to A.I. your cow in the summer. For instance, if you want a calf in mid May, you’ll need to catch your cow in standing heat in mid August.
The good news is that this will be great weather for the calf to be born, the not so great news is that in most parts of the country August is the peak of heat and weather stress can make your cow less likely breed.
Cattle, of course, can have calves year round, that’s not the issue. The challenge is to make the calving date line up with what works the best for your cattle and your area. Sometimes, that means breeding in the heat.
You’ll have many bulls to choose from to A.I. your cow
You will have a large number of choices of bulls to choose to A. I. your cow. More than likely the tech you call will work for or with a specific company, so make sure you know which bulls you should be looking at and picking from.
Don’t hesitate to crossbreed your cow, is that is what you think will get you the best results. Especially if you plan to sell the calf, think about what will sell well in your area.
If you hope to keep the calf if it’s a heifer, don’t worry about what your neighbors are doing, select something that will help you improve your herd. Unless, of course, your neighbors are kicking butt, then I’d shamelessly copy!
Know what traits you are trying to improve in your cattle
Hopefully, you have a particular trait that you are looking to focus on with your herd. If you don’t, you need to figure this out before you choose the bull. Otherwise, how can you make a sensible choice?
Are you wanting to focus on calving ease or stature (taller or shorter)? Do you want efficient cattle? Are you looking to keep the heifer and want to focus your breeding towards maternal improvements?
Think this through and figure out what really matters to you and your cattle. Don’t just go with the most popular bull or the one on the front of the catalog, unless his genetics will give you the results you want.
Know what traits you are hoping to eliminate or reduce in your cattle
No herd is perfect and nearly all individuals could use a little bit more or less of something, to make the calf a better, closer to ideal specimen than the dam. What is the most important trait that your cattle could use improving upon?
Are you noticing that red cattle seem to handle the heat in your area better than black cattle? If so, maybe you should consider lighter coat color selection as a way to increase gains.
Maybe you are tired of pulling calves or just don’t want to get into pulling calves, at all. If so, go with a bull known for calving ease.
If you feel your cattle just do not have the growth you’d like to see, consider cross breeding. Keep frame size the same close to the same, just choose a complimentary breed to that of your cow.
Crossbreeding will infuse some hybrid vigor into your calf, which will get you a jump in performance, but will also give you crossbred calves as your potential replacements for the year. Not a problem, if you are happy with the cross.
It takes 1 straw of semen to breed a cow
It takes one straw of semen to breed a cow. If she comes back into heat, you’ll need to repeat the breeding, which will be another straw of semen per breeding.
This is assuming you did your part, monitoring, and the your cow was in good condition at the time of standing heat. If your cow is thin or milking a lot, she may not breed back. If she is fat, she may not breed, either.
Of course, for any A.I. to be successful, the semen has to be of high quality and properly handled, but that’s what you are paying the technician for. Your job is to watch the cow.
A technician will perform the A.I. for you
Before you need the help, call around ahead of time to see who performs A.I. in your area. In our area, Select Sires Beef is popular for beef cattle insemination, both semen orders and techs.
There are plenty of other cattle semen sources, search around online and see what is available near you.
Use Select Sires, if you want dairy genetics, instead.
Even if you have a dairy cow, you may want to consider breeding her to a beef sire, to get a better growing, meatier calf, especially if your cow is young and you do not want to expand or keep a replacement heifer just yet.
Call the tech when your cow is in standing heat
The way A.I. works is you call and say cow in standing heat. The tech will set up a time to come, or maybe just tell you about when to expect him to show up. (I’m sure there are female techs, as well, it’s just usually a guy around here.)
Make sure to ask what the tech needs from you, having the cow in a small pen or a head lock will be a minimum.
Do you need to be there? Ask the tech. Whether or not your help during the actual insemination is required will depend on your set up and your cow’s behavior!
Call a few weeks ahead of time if you want to choose a specific bull
If you are planning to choose a specific bull, not just a breed, you should call a few weeks ahead of your best guess for the breeding date and ask if the tech normally has that bull on his truck.
If the bull you like is not a bull the tech normally stocks, by calling ahead you give him some lead time to get in what you are hoping for or something close to it.
If he can’t get the bull you want, since you called ahead, you’ll have time to look into some of the other bulls on the roster and see which one will work for you and your cow.
Successful A.I. depends on you and the cow
You should know that A.I. in cattle can be very successful, it always has been for us, but conception is not guaranteed, by any stretch.
Much of the likely success with cattle breeding, or not breeding, depends upon nutrition and observation. Both of which are on you.
A highly skilled tech will not be successful when you call him late or to breed a cow in poor body condition.
Successful A. I. in cattle is all about timing. You need to be rock solid on what time your tech wants you to call him. When the cow is first in heat? After 12 hours, when?
Here’s where I’ll rock the boat a bit. We always A.I. when the cow is standing, definitely within 6 hours of seeing her standing. Meaning if we can’t get her to the barn right this second, it’s okay, but we don’t wait until tomorrow!
According to industry practice, we are wrong. According to our success rate, we are right. You’ll have to decide this for yourself.
Timing of Insemination by George Heersche, Jr., Ph.D., is a University of Kentucky Extension goes over when to breed your cow according to industry standards. It is geared towards dairy cattle, but the basics are the same for both.
Artificial Insemination is an article on the Beef Cattle Research Council site, if you want the scoop on A.I. from a beef specific article. This article goes over using synchronization.
Cows can be synchronized, but it is not necessary when you only have a few head
Knowing the timing is especially critical if you are using any hormone synchronization. There is a very specific time schedule that you need to follow for the breeding to work, make sure your management is on target.
To be clear, hormone treatments are not needed to A.I. your cow. If you want to A.I. your whole herd the same day, then synchronization is mandatory, but otherwise, just watch your cow.
I just watched a popular YouTube channel talk about all of the shenanigans they are going through to get the cow bred, including multiple hormones treatments. This is unnecessary.
If the cow is healthy, she’ll breed with out the “treatments”. The trouble getting her bred is more likely to be a management problem, lack of observation, than a hormone problem.
Spending more time with the heifer seeing her in action will most likely fix this “not breeding” problem. Chances are they are just missing her standing heat, once again, observation is the cure to this problem.
Breeding and reproduction are normal cattle activities, as long as your cow is in good condition, not fat or thin, she should breed without introducing hormone treatments.
If you are having trouble with your cow “catching” (conceiving a pregnancy, also called “settling” or “taking”) look to her nutrition and your management. Healthy cows breed.
I must mention, you need to have a trained A.I. tech do the insemination for you, not just some guy who “thinks he can do it”.
If you want to do your own A.I. work, you can learn. Take a class from a professional.
A.I. is not complicated and once a knowledgeable person explains it to you, you’ll understand the basics, easily. The catch is, like all kinds of other skills, some folks are better at it and just seem to “have the knack”.
Fortunately for us, my husband has the knack for it. He has a super high success rate, we rarely have to rebreed a cow. But, as I mentioned above, we spend a lot of time with our stock.
If you are not capable of setting aside some observation time, due to work or the cattle being in a different location, you might just be better off with a bull.
Seriously, a calf sired by a bull that is not your preferred choice is better than not getting a calf this year!