The benefits of using artificial insemination (AI) in the suckler herd are well proven, with calves from sires in the top 1 per cent of the breed for beef value being worth up to £45 per head more than calves from sires in the bottom 1 per cent according the research at Harper Adams back in 2007.
Financial benefits not only come from good growth rates and decreased time to finish, but also from easier calvings and improved maternal traits.
However, uptake of DIY in suckler herds is still relatively low.
Amy Fawcett, AHDB Beef and Lamb knowledge exchange manager, says: “It is often seen as hard work; cattle have to be handled more than usual and it can be difficult to get an AI technician to come and serve them at the correct time to maximise conception rates.
“However, there is more than one way to use AI in a suckler herd and if you put a bit of thought into it, AI might be much simpler to implement on your farm than you think.”
Using synchronisation removes the need to heat detect in many cases, which can be difficult with beef cattle if they are not close by.
“It also means you can get your heifers served and calved first, allowing them more time to start cycling before they are served again,” explains Ms Fawcett.
“AI technicians are available across a lot of the country, however, doing a do-it-yourself (DIY) AI course is also an option.
“I have also heard of some suckler producers drafting in the help of neighbouring dairy farmers. AI has been used in dairy herds for a long time so ask around, there may be someone who is willing to help you out at service.
"However you make it work in your herd, there is no doubt that the payoff will be worth it.”
Edward Rook, who has a herd of more than 200 Stabiliser cattle, decided to do a DIY AI course three years ago.
He says: “The Stabiliser company had been harvesting semen from top bulls for a number of years and I wanted to make use of it. There are few technicians around where we farm so I thought AI was something I could do myself, with the added flexibility of being able to do it when I wanted.
“I use a synchronisation programme and so I pulled the best heifers out of the herd and put them on the programme so they would come on to heat the week after I completed the course, meaning I could get practice in straight away.”
Mr Rook now AIs about 25-30 heifers each year but says he is looking to double that in order to AI all first service heifers himself.
“The use of synchronisation, AI and a sweeper bull has meant I have a nine-week calving block and conception rate of 65 to 70 per cent,” he says.
Mr Rook says he believes AI greatly increases the rate of genetic gain within the herd.
“You do not have to wait for the sons of top bulls to use on farm, you can use semen from the bull itself. It also means you can use any type of genetics. If there is something specific you want to improve within the herd then you can easily find a bull with the genetics to do it."
Mike Powley has a herd of 90 South Devon and South Devon cross Limousin cows. He has been using AI in his herd for 20 years and uses a Genus technician.
He says: “It was quite unique 20 years ago for a suckler producer to be using AI but it is becoming more common now.”
Cows are served following natural heats, and Mr Powley has been using heat detection collars from around seven years.
“When heat is detected we give the technician a call and they will come and inseminate the next morning. This year we managed a nine-week calving block and hit our target conception rate of 70 per cent.”
He says he started to using AI to increase genetic gain and enable him to try new things within the herd.
“Crossing Limousin bulls with our South Devon cows works well on our farm but we are always looking to try something different. We have tried different breeds and for the last two years have been using Norwegian Red semen to produce a milkier heifer to breed from going forward.
"Last spring we had calves from five nationalities: Australian Charolais, Norwegian Red, American Stabiliser, British Blue and Aberdeen-Angus. We look far and wide to try different things.”
Mr Powley says for him the benefit of using AI is that he can experiment with different breeds and see what suits his system.
“It means we can keep improving the herd and buy the best genetics we can find in a cost-effective way. We want to breed cattle which grow well, have good conformation and meet the target market specification. AI means we can pick and choose genetics to ensure we do that.
"You also do not have the maintenance costs and implications of using a bull. A top bull can set you back £30,000-40,000 but with AI you can use the best genetics at a fraction of the cost, as well as having the flexibility of trying out different breeds. If something does not work, you can use something different the following year,” says Mr Powley.