Britain‘s beef sector has been slow to take up the opportunities offered by artificial insemination according to several industry experts. This is in comparison to the popularity of the technique on the continent and in the United States.
Boomer Birch, beef specialist with Cogent says, there are many reasons why farmers might want to switch to using artificial insemination (AI) rather than using stock bulls.
He says: “It is expensive to access the top genetics for a suckler herd as the best bulls can cost anything from £10,000 to £70,000. Even if farmers do spend this kind of money on a bull, it will rarely be able to bring all the genetic traits the farmer is looking for.”
Mr Birch points to the cost of keeping a stock bull, the risk when handling the bull and the implications if it is injured.
“There can be considerable savings to be made from using AI and gains to profitability through a tighter calving period. There is also a reduced risk to herd health by avoiding the introduction of bought-in bulls.”
As AI use becomes more commonplace in suckler herds, there is a greater choice of bulls. This means there is usually something suitable for every producer’s situation, according to Sam Boon, Eblex breeding specialist.
“There is now a wide choice of bulls available for AI from most breeds, although among the numerically smaller breeds it can be a challenge as only a few new bulls are introduced each year,” he says.
Mr Boon urges farmers to think carefully about their system and their breeding objectives when selecting bulls.
“The most important consideration is whether the aim is to produce heifer replacements or a terminal sire. If the latter, ease of calving, growth and carcase quality will be the most important factors.”
The availability of older bulls with proven genetic maternal traits is an advantage to farmers looking to improve calving ease or milk production.
“There are now many bulls with large numbers of recorded daughters, so the high accuracy of estimated breeding values [EBVs] from these animals gives the producer confidence they will improve these traits within the females.
“Traits for improved liveweight gain and better carcase grades have a higher heritability, so it is also possible to buy younger bulls with confidence in the accuracy of their figures," says Mr Boon.
For some suckler producers there is scope to use AI to bring in different breeds of bull so progeny can benefit from hybrid vigour.
“If farmers are looking for better health, fertility and greater longevity, hybrid vigour will deliver a significant positive effect on these traits,” says Mr Boon.
“Bringing in bulls from different breeds can also give favourable results due to breed complementarity. For example, using a larger framed terminal sire breed of bull on a smaller maternal breed of cow.”
Mr Boon has worked with a number of producers who have a small pedigree herd alongside their commercial suckler unit. For them, AI can also bring advantages.
“Producers who have a small pedigree herd can buy in genetics from bulls with performance records in the top 5 per cent for their breed at an affordable cost.
“This enables significant genetic progress in a short period of time and allows them to compete with larger herds.”
For those farmers with a suckler herd who are thinking of using AI for the first time, Keith Cutler of Endell Veterinary Group offers some advice.
“AI will necessitate handling cows at more regular intervals so good handling facilities are essential to reduce stress on the cow and handler.”
Mr Cutler says the factors which are vital to conception with natural service also apply to AI and the method of synchronisation depends on a number of factors.
“There are two main methods. The first, using two injections of prostaglandin administered 11 days apart is cheapest, but cows must be cycling normally for it to be effective.
“It is not appropriate where cows have a low body condition score, or for smaller heifers or cows which have recently calved as they are unlikely to be cycling.”
In these circumstances, Mr Cutler recommends using an artificial corpus luteum. For this method, a progesterone releasing device is inserted into the vagina for between eight and 12 days, with AI carried out shortly after.
Mr Cutler says farmers can expect conception rates from 50-60 per cent and typically higher than natural service rates for heifers.
“We can now scan cows just one month after service. If cows have not conceived after first service, it is possible to synchronise again or some farmers may use a sweeper bull.”
Mr Cutler believes there is much to be gained from AI for the beef producer, including a tighter calving pattern, but it requires sufficient commitment.
“Farmers must be prepared to invest the management time if AI is to be successful. If they follow the plan and have chosen the right bulls, AI can bring significant benefits to the herd and business."
George Wilkins and daughter Joanne Clarke have spent more than 20 years improving the infrastructure of their beef herd at Wester Whitecastle Farm, South Lanarkshire, but it has been the introduction of AI which has resulted in the most significant improvements.
Making the very best of the herd’s genetic potential is the ideal way to maximise production according to Mr Wilkins and Ms Clarke and it has been this philosophy which has seen the farm move away from stock bulls.
Today, they use a single bull as a sweeper and the rest of the herd is served exclusively to AI.
Mr Wilkins says the ability to select from top performing beef sires enables faster genetic gain and boosts farm profits.
He says: “When you buy a bull onto the farm it does not always lead to the improvements in progeny you are looking for and it has gone wrong for us in the past.
“With AI, you have security; we can match the bull to the cow, improve stock genetics and have a bigger choice when bulling replacement heifers. We can select the genetics we want to keep in our herd.”
Mr Wilkins values the ability to experiment with the number of sires on offer through AI.
“Using sexed semen on maiden heifers gives us a better chance at calving and we are seeing lighter, easier-born, female calves. We also use sexed semen on some pedigree Shorthorns and foundation stock to ensure a female calf, which helps improve the quality of our female herd replacements.”
Selection of AI bulls is based on EBVs.
“With AI you can select bulls for specific traits. One thing we look for is breed character – calves are like people, they have their own distinct characteristics.
“We started with a foundation cow from sexed semen; she now has calved so we have a good idea of what we are going to get in the future,” says Mr Wilkins.
Currently, selection is focused around high growth rates and good maternal values with bulls such as Gallant, Eildon and Firefox used. Going forward, they would like to refine this line-up and will be using Goldcard, a sire renowned for his great breed character and maternal production value.
A passion for beef production in the next generation at Wester Whitecastle means the farm’s future looks promising.
Ms Clarke’s daughter, Rebecca, is keen to become part of the family business once she has completed her exams and intends to learn DIY AI. This will allow the family to maintain their high health herd status – the herd is currently R1 for Johne’s and accredited BVD free – by breeding their own replacements and reducing the risk of buying-in disease.
Wester Whitecastle Farm