Artificial Insemination is No Bull (Literally)
Here is What Works for Us on Our Cattle Farm
By Kay Wolfe
Reading Time: 8 minutes
Most homesteaders dream of having their own cow to provide fresh milk and dairy products for the whole family. The challenge is, a milk cow must become pregnant before she can lactate, and that means you’re going to need a bull—unless you use artificial insemination (AI). All you really need is a local AI technician and a straw of bull semen, so don’t let the need for a bull dissuade you from becoming a cow owner. AI can be cheaper, safer, and gives you access to the best genetics in the world delivered to your farm.
Why Not Use A Bull?
The most obvious reason not to keep a bull is because you need him only once a year. For the other 364 days you’ll have to house and feed him, taking up valuable pasture and barn space that you could be using for your cow, not to mention the added expense. It is just not feasible to keep a bull for a small number of cows when there is a much better option. To me, the best reason not to keep a bull, or even lease a bull temporarily, is your family’s safety. Even a dairy bull raised by hand as a pet will become extremely dangerous at sexual maturity. They can have no fear or respect for humans and will challenge your dominance. They can be eating out of your hand one minute and grinding you into the ground the next, without any warning or provocation.
(Editor’s note: Raising cattle is inherently dangerous, and we’ve had cattle raisers email us and tell us the cows are more dangerous than the bulls, too.)
Since it’s really only the semen you need, there are corporations who buy and collect semen from the very best bulls which they offer to the public in straws frozen to last indefinitely. The most well known sources are Select Sires, Genex, World Wide Sires, Accelerated Genetics, and ABS Global. Their websites provide a listing of bulls along with a plethora of statistics and information to help you pick the bull to best breed with your cow.
You’ll find the biggest selection with Holsteins since they are the most popular dairy breed used by commercial dairies, but they also carry several of the lesser known breeds such as milking short horn, Ayrshire, Guernsey, etc. If your cow is registered you will most likely want to choose a bull of the same breed so you can register the calf. Otherwise, you may want to try a complementary breed for hybrid vigor.
In order to evaluate a bull, they collect information about his daughters in reference to their conformation, as well as their production. The more daughters a bull has to evaluate, the more accurate the information reported will be. If he is young and unproven, they will take the statistics from his sire and dam to get an approximation of his potential. Basically, the bull’s report is a predictor of what you can expect with his offspring. Keep in mind, the bull is only half of the story, so you have to consider your cow’s strengths and weaknesses before selecting her mate. Collecting and marketing a bull is expensive, so they really don’t buy a sire unless he is superior. Any semen they offer is probably better than the bulls you will find locally. If you’ve never read bull proofs
If you’ve never read bull proofs it can seem like a foreign language. Milk statistics are reported in pounds, not gallons. (A gallon of milk weighs about eight pounds.) They also report, among other things, the amount of protein, the percent of protein, the amount of fat, and the percent of fat in the milk. Zero is considered average so anything with a plus sign shows how much above average this bull’s daughters will produce. Conversely, a negative means they produce less than average for that particular measurement. Since commercial dairies are paid by the pound, their goal seems to be forever increasing the milk yield but with a family cow, quantity is not as important to me as quality. I prefer a bull that provides great milk fat, regardless of the pounds of milk his offspring produce.
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There are also statistics related to conformation. As a home cow, you are going to want to keep her for many years so you need an udder that can hold up for the duration. I prefer to pick a bull with great udder scores—meaning they have a strong attachment on an udder that is high and wide. There is no such thing as a perfect bull or a perfect cow, so you’ll have to take the good with the bad. Assess your cow’s best and worst qualities and find a bull that excels where she fails. The goal should always be to improve your cow’s genetics. If you need help understanding the information in the report, ask the provider for the key to their abbreviations.
Technology is constantly changing, and semen providers have finally found a way to select the sex of your next calf. Dairy bulls are not worth much so we prefer a little heifer, but we used to be disappointed about half the time. Not anymore! We now buy “gender select,” which means the semen has been processed in a way that separates the male from the female sperm. Sexed semen results in a heifer calf more than 90 percent of the time once the cow conceives. The processing does result in fewer sperm so the conception rate is not as high as with regular semen. The provider recommends it only be used on heifers since their studies show heifers have an easier time conceiving on sexed semen than mature cows, but that has not been our experience. We use sexed semen on all ages and have been equally successful with mature cows. The semen does cost slightly more, but I consider it a good return on my investment when I get a registered heifer out of the deal.
Picking the Right AI Technician
You’ll obviously need a trained and experienced technician to successfully settle (impregnate) your cow with the semen you have selected. Some providers have their own technicians who carry an inventory of the name-brand semen, while other technicians are self-employed and can obtain semen from any of the providers. The important thing is to find a technician who works in your area. Ask your neighbors, feed store owners, veterinarians (many are trained in AI), extension agent, agriculture teachers, other cow owners, and of course, the semen corporation for referrals to a local technician.
In some areas, AI technicians are plentiful, while they are very hard to find in other locations. My county only has one but he is excellent and has become a great family friend. We purchase our semen from Select Sires and they ship it directly to my technician in a tank, which he returns the same way it was shipped. He stores our straws of semen in his tank (used to keep the straws at the proper sub-freezing temperature) until needed. We pay Select Sires directly for the semen and shipping and then pay our AI technician $50 for each visit. Your cost may be different. It is common for them to charge mileage if they have to travel more than a few miles.
You are not paying the AI technician for the outcome. You are paying them for their time and expertise and payment is expected at the time of insemination. There are no guarantees so expect to pay your AI technician each time they inseminate, even if the previous one did not take. If you can find a good technician, he or she is worth their weight in gold. I cannot do what he does and I am not willing to learn so I am more than happy to pay them to service my cows multiple times, if that is what it takes. Fortunately, we’ve been very successful with AI and most cows settle after one insemination. If a cow can’t seem to settle with AI, I sell her!
But what if you can’t find a technician? Then what you have is a great opportunity for someone in your area to fill that need and start a new business. There are classes at most agriculture colleges that will teach you this skill in a matter of days. Consider becoming an AI technician yourself and earning extra income, in addition to breeding your own cows.
Artificial Insemination FAQ
Can The Homesteader Do Anything To Help?
Most people think the success or failure of AI rests on the technician, but there are many things that are out of their control. I find that timing is everything when it comes to successfully breeding cattle using AI. An equally important factor is the condition of the animal you are breeding. We have also found the time of year and the weather can have a positive or negative effect on the outcome. Since these things are in your control, not the AI technician’s, you have the ability to stack the deck in your favor.
How Often Are Cows In Heat?
Cows cycle monthly, meaning they come into “heat” each month until they conceive. If a cow is not pregnant and not cycling then something is wrong. That’s rare though, and most cows are on a 21 day cycle, varying a few days either way. They can only breed when they are in heat, and the window of opportunity to breed is in hours, not days. That’s why it is extremely important for you to know when your cow is cycling. It is not as hard as you may think, since you’ll be with your family cow every day and you’ll get to know her personality very well.
How Can I Tell If A Cow Is In Heat?
Cows are individuals and each one react a little differently, but most cows in heat will be vocal, calling for a bull. They seem to show signs of coming into heat either early in the morning or in late afternoon, so that’s a great time to check on them. She will seem more rambunctious, active, and if there are other cows around, they will mount each other. Be extra careful around her during heat, especially if she is a lone cow. It’s not uncommon for her to try and mount you by rearing up on your shoulders. She does not mean to hurt you but she certainly can. We’ve even seen them try to mount our ATV! She may also run the fence looking for a way to escape. Physically, her vulva may be slightly swollen and she may have a jelled-like discharge.
“Standing heat” is when a cow will stand still while another bovine, either male or female, mounts her from behind. This is all driven by hormones, so there is nothing wrong with your cows or steers when they jump on each other. That’s just bovine behavior. The signs of heat will most likely last about 24 hours, and the optimal time to AI is often debated. Lots of people watch for standing heat, but that’s not always possible, especially if you only have one cow. My rule is to breed 12 hours after any sign of heat. I record their cycles on a calendar so I know when to expect signs of heat. If I see any change in her behavior that morning, I call my AI technician and request he come that afternoon. If she comes in heat in the evening, I have my AI technician come early morning. Just to be sure, sometimes I have him breed her a second time 12 hours after the first. I’m not saying you have to do it twice, but we seldom have a cow that fails to conceive using this method.
Where Should AI Take Place?
You will need a safe place for your AI technician to do their work. If you have a milking stanchion, that works perfectly. A head shoot is great or you can use a gate or cattle panel to push up against her to keep her in place. Some people simply use a halter and a lead rope to tie her in the barn. Just be prepared and have her ready before the AI technician comes. It’s not their job to catch and secure her, that’s yours.
What Does The AI Technician Do?
The AI technician will remove the straw of semen from the tank and place it in a container for it to thaw and hold it at the optimal temperature until used. He will then place the straw in a “gun,” which is used to eject the semen when in place. He will insert one arm in her rectum far enough in order to feel her cervix through the wall of the intestines. He will hold the cervix with one hand while he inserts the gun with the semen straw into the vagina and through the dilated cervix (if the timing is wrong, the cervix will no longer be open) before releasing the semen. He then removes the gun and his arms and the job is done. It’s just that quick and simple. It doesn’t hurt the cow and she will show no sign of being distressed.
What Keeps A Cow From Conceiving?
There are a number of things that can affect your cow’s ability to conceive. We find it nearly impossible to settle a cow in extreme heat so we avoid breeding in summer. If a cow has been left open (not pregnant) too long, she can become overweight, which affects her hormones. Don’t let a young heifer go too long before breeding or you may find it very difficult to get her settled. I like my heifers to have their first calf right at two years old, but that will depend on the breed and size as some mature slower than others.
An underweight cow will also be difficult to settle. Some lactating cows put every ounce of energy into making milk at the expense of their own fat reserves. If you’ve got one of those high producing dairy animals, she will only get worse as her lactation goes on, so I like to breed on the second heat after calving (or freshening as some call it). It can be beneficial to catch her on the upswing when your pastures are at their peak, so it’s a good idea to evaluate your feeding regiment as well as your cow’s body condition before breeding. If you are still unsuccessful, talk to your veterinarian about possible health problems and/or hormone treatments to bring her into heat.