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AI boosts genetic progress in beef herd

Use of artificial insemination (AI) on heifers in the 55-cow spring calving suckler herd at Penrhiw, Capel Dewi, has been easier than anticipated, according to Cardiganshire farmer, Phil Cowcher.
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Farming organically alongside his parents Tom and Eva, Phil has been the main driver behind the introduction of AI for the first time last year.

Fifteen heifers were served in total, just once each by an AI technician, with natural service used for any subsequent cycles. Calving of the heifer group was complete by the end of April, and Phil reports 80 per cent conception to AI, with just two calving to the bull and one heifer barren.

He says: “I thought the whole process would be more difficult and time consuming. I was not very experienced in heat detection, and synchronisation was not an option for us as organic farmers. We used tail paint as an aid and I looked at the cattle up to three-times-a-day during the bulling period.

“I have an app on my phone that links to our herd management software, so recording bulling activity is instant and easy, and the programme then prompts me through the phone when the next cycle is due.

“The heifers were at grass and we fed them about 1kg/day of concentrate just to help with the handling. Heifers were served in a crush by independent AI technician Andrew Davies, using the Stabiliser bull Crugeran Llewelyn which was supplied by Cogent.

“Our handling facilities were already suitable for AI, so the only cost to us to start using AI has been semen, the technician and the tail paint.”

Following this encouraging start, Phil now sees AI as an integral part of his future breeding strategy, in what is now mainly a Stabiliser herd, with conversion from Welsh Blacks and Limousin crosses on-going.

Easy calving

He says: “Using AI allows us to select the best easy calving low birth weight sires for the heifers, to minimise any potential calving problems. We can match our best maternal heifers to the top maternal bulls, so we are increasing our chances of producing the right kind of replacements.

“By using our heifers as the primary source of replacements, we are increasing our rate of genetic progress and freeing up more of the cows to be bred to a terminal sire.”

Crugeran Llewelyn was used on the recommendation of Gareth Scott, Cogent’s beef sales manager. He says: “Llewelyn has good all round figures and is particularly strong on his maternal values. He is recommended for use on heifers and his progeny are performing well in net feed efficiency trials.”

Phil says: “A compact calving period is very important to us, and I believe using AI will help us to maintain this. The plan for the future is to use AI on all our heifers, and keep two stock bulls for the cows.

“This means bulls are running with smaller groups [up to 25 cows], which ensures we maintain high conception rates.

“With most of our replacements coming from heifers bred through AI, we will be able to keep our two bulls longer. This reduces our costs and allows us to maintain our closed herd status for longer and improve our biosecurity as a result.”

The strategy seems to be working, with the 2015 calving resulting in 74 per cent of cattle overall breeding successfully in their first cycle and a further 22 per cent holding in their second.

“We have had no losses and one set of twins, so overall we are at 98 per cent live calves from cows and heifers served, which we are happy with.

“Moving forward we will allow the bulls to run with the cows for six weeks and cull anything which does not hold in this period.”

Farm facts

  • 202 hectares (500 acres) owned, rented and share farmed – grass and forage crops, plus 32ha (80 acres) of barley, oats, barley/pea wholecrop for home feeding. Brassica crops grown for finishing later lambs
  • 850 breeding ewes
  • Cows with calves at foot are rotationally grazed until housingAfter housing creep gates are used to gradually introduce the growing ration to calves before weaning
  • Heifers and steers are reared to finish at around 18 months, achieving over 300kg deadweight mainly off grass
  • Replacement heifers are reared to a target bulling weight of 400kg at 14 months


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