Five ways to make AI in the Suckler Herd a success

Suckler calves
Suckler calves

Seán Doorley

Using AI in the Suckler herd can offer a farmer many benefits.

Increased adoption of AI provides access to some of the best and proven beef genetics in the country.

It allows you to match each cow to a suitable bull to get a calf on the ground that suits your particular needs such as ease of calving, beef carcass conformation, maternal traits or daily live weight gain.

Figures from ICBF show that the average stock-bull sires 80 calves over its 4 year lifetime.

When you take into account feeding costs of the bull and salvage costs, a bull on a 20 cow herd costing €2000 will have a breeding cost of €32.50 per calf. This rises to €45 per calf if purchase cost is €3000 and €57.50 per calf if the purchase price is €4000. AI will cost on average €30 per serve and €10 for a repeat.

When the average suckler herd size in the Midlands and West is only 13 it is hard to justify a large investment in a stock bull. You must also keep in mind that a stock bull is considered a safety risk around the farm. Here are five ways you can make AI a success on your farm.

1. Good nutrition

The target is to have cows at condition score 2.5 at mating and that they are on a positive plane of nutrition. This time of the year it is important they have plenty of good quality leafy Spring grass ahead of them, so that body condition is building.

By mid pregnancy they should be at condition score of 3.

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No matter what condition she is in, both BVD and Leptospirosis can hamper her chances of going in calf, so ensure cows are properly vaccinated.

2. Heat Detection

To assist in detection of cows in heat a farmer should consider using a vasectomised teaser bull or a steer to help in heat detection. One with dairy genes are generally the more active.

A chin ball harness on the teaser bull/bullock and tail paint will help further in showing which cow is on heat. Check them twice a day with a teaser bull, three times a day with a steer and five times a day if you have neither!!

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The Tail Painter&.the Agrify Tailpainter, designed by Liam OKeeffe, Dairy farmer, from Ballydesmond, Co Cork. Photo:Valerie OSullivan

Also aides such as heat signal devices such as scratch cards/pad/light indicators placed on the tail head are good in alerting  you to a cow who may be in heat. Electronic indicators have also come onto the market that either fit on a teaser bull or on the cow/heifer that monitor behaviour and will indicate on your phone if an animal is showing signs of heat. Most cows come in heat between 8pm and 8am.

Therefore, late evening and early morning observations are critical to good heat detection. Follow the a.m./p.m. rule regarding time of AI.

3. Handling facilities

Good field layout is important when bringing in cow to serve. Have your fields set up so that gathering cows is an easy task. Use temporary electric fencing to narrow the angle towards the pen gate.

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Maeve O'Keefe from Ballynoe, Co. Cork with her innovative cattle crush which reduces the workload for handling livestock

Having the cows used to been fed a small amount of meal in the pen also helps get cows in. Have you crush and race in good repair to make the job of restraining the animal stress free.

4. Synchronisation programmes

Where time and labour is short for heat detection and gathering cows for AI, then synchronisation of your cows may be an option. 

Synchronisation allows for the use of AI on an appointed day. This will reduce the amount of time devoted to heat detection. There are various Synchronisation programmes that can be undertaken.  Cows will have to be brought in to insert/remove synchronisation devices, to facilitate the administration of shots and for fixed time AI.

The advantage is you know the days cows have to be brought in and you can have extra help on those days. The expected conception rates vary from 30- 75%.

For best results cows need to be in good condition as described above and are at least 35 days calved. The synchronisation programme adopted needs to be followed very closely as prescribed. A bull can be turned out after to catch any cows who repeat. A successful programme will result in a more compact period next year.

5. Good management

To make using AI a success requires good management. About 10% of the reasons for failure to detect heats are attributable to “cow” problems and 90% to “management” problems.

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Weanling bulls

Management problems include too few observations per day or too little time spent observing the cows. Having cows in the right condition, in good health and having good handling facilities requires been organised and been focused to achieve the desired outcome.

AI can be just as successful as natural service and breeding targets such as compact calving (80% of cows calved in 60 days), a 365-day calving interval, 5-6 calves/cow/lifetime on average and 0.95 calves reared /cow/ year can be achieved.

Seán Doorley is a Beef & Sheep Adviser in Longford Town

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