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Putting AI to Best Use
Artificial insemination (AI) is a critical herd-management tool for Bruce and Tena Ketchum, Plevna, Montana. For more than 25 years, they’ve used AI in both their commercial and purebred herds of Red Angus. They depend on it to provide genetic improvement as well as labor savings at calving time.
Affordability of top genetics is a key benefit of AI. “We can use a $40,000 bull or spend $20 a unit of semen,” says Bruce. “It’s hard to justify going out and spending $40,000 on a bull.”
When selecting AI sires, the Ketchums look beyond a bull’s expected progeny differences.
“The type of cattle we’re trying to raise are not mainstream-type cattle,” says Ketchum. “We select AI bulls from operations we’ve visited. We look for sires that’ll work in our environment, where cattle have to do well living under rangeland conditions on a limited diet. We market to clientele who want working cattle.”
Of their 300 head of purebred cows, the Ketchums AI some 220 head annually. “We don’t AI first-calf heifers or any cows that calve after April 1,” he notes.
They also AI 200 head of registered and commercial yearling replacement heifers. Breeding the yearlings by AI is a way for the couple to shorten the heifers’ calving period, which is typically labor-intensive.
“We synchronize the heifers and time-breed on one day,” says Ketchum. “Then we bull-breed the yearlings for 30 to 35 days. That lets us concentrate the effort at calving, because most of the calves are born in a short period of time.”
Another major benefit of breeding yearling heifers by AI is the opportunity it affords to screen sires for calving ease. “We’re able to breed heifers to bulls that are proven for calving ease,” he says. “That really reduces labor during the calving season because we have fewer calving problems.”
The Ketchums also use AI as a tool to impose selection pressure on heifers. Heifers that don’t conceive during the 35-day breeding season are sold.
“We want heifers as well as bulls to do their jobs,” says Ketchum. “Though industry recommendations call for running more clean-up bulls, we run just one bull per 100 head of heifers for cleaning up after AI. Through this process, there are many risks that we face, but we’re willing to face those risks in order to put the selection pressure on the cattle.”
The AI Barn
Keeping cattle quiet while handling and inseminating is critical to AI success. Restraining and AI’ing the cattle in a darkened area seem to encourage calmness.
That’s why the Ketchums breed cattle in an enclosed barn. Commercial models are available, but the Ketchums’ AI barn is a two-stall trailer measuring 6×16 feet.
A gap at the front gives enough light to encourage cattle to enter. A bar drops down behind them, but their heads are not restrained. Canvases can be pulled down at the back to block their view of rearward activity.
The AI barn offers the added benefit of preventing sunlight from hitting the insemination gun. It also shelters technicians from bad weather.
Besides AI’ing their own cattle, the Ketchums and their AI teams custom-breed thousands of head of cattle every year for other beef producers. Most of these are commercial operators who depend upon synchronized AI programs to get consistent, uniform calf crops.
“These calves will all be related, and they’ll be born within a short window of time,” says Ketchum.
These uniform groups of calves tend to command price premiums at marketing time.
The opportunity to breed cows to bulls of proven carcass merit is another reason many of the Ketchums’ customers choose to breed their cows by AI.
Conception rates on the Ketchums’ timed-breeding AI program average 65%. Given today’s synchronization protocols, a 65% conception rate is normal, says Ketchum. A few of their custom-AI clients, who use more labor-intensive programs involving heat detection, sometimes get 80% conception rates.
Despite the time pressures presented by processing thousands of cattle every spring and summer, the Ketchums never take shortcuts. They focus on doing the best job possible at these four stages of the process.
• Synchronization. For whatever protocol they select as a synchronization tool, they follow the steps to a tee.
“We make sure that all the shots needed in the protocol are given at the proper time,” says Ketchum. “If timed breeding is part of the protocol, we consider that the timing of the breeding is critical, and we calculate it all out as we’re setting up facilities and crew members for the processing of the cattle.”
• Heat Detection. When visually detecting heat is a part of the breeding program, the Ketchums pay special attention to the early-morning and late-evening periods of detection.
“Because the largest percentage of cattle will come into heat in early morning and late evening, we’re out there early and we stay out late,” says Ketchum.
When heat-detecting aids like a tail-head patch are used, they watch for other behaviors to verify estrus in animals whose patch has turned color. “With heifers, for instance, the patch could have turned pink just because one heifer happened to be riding another,” he says. “We watch for other behaviors.”
• Semen Handling. When removing straws from the canister, they make sure not to lift the canister too high within the neck of the nitrogen tank. This would expose all of the semen to warm temperatures, which can damage the semen that is to remain in the tank.
Because water can kill semen, they carefully wipe all moisture from the straw after removing it from the warm-water bath and before opening the sealed end.
They also take precautions to block sunlight from hitting the straw, since sunlight also can kill semen.
• Insemination Procedure. Depositing semen just inside the uterus gives it the best chance of entering both uterine horns. Semen placement too far forward in the uterus may result in most of the semen entering only one uterine horn, while ovulation is actually occurring in the opposite horn.
“Cleanliness in prepping and entering the cow with the insemination gun also affects conception,” says Ketchum.
“Every step of the AI process is critical. If you start cutting corners, you’ll lower the conception rate,” Ketchum says.
Bruce and Tena Ketchum