Currently, the amount of suckler farms in Ireland using AI is low; somewhere in the region of 25% of progeny from the suckler herd are bred from AI, while the remaining 75% are served by a stock bull.

Some of the reasons for this can be attributed to part-time farming, poor-handling facilities or land fragmentation.

Each individual farm is different. However, every effort should be made to improve genetics in the suckler herd. Genetic information is available to help farmers identify animals that have superior genetics that can – in turn – increase the profitability of the offspring they are producing.

Firstly, the average size of the suckler herd in Ireland is less than 20 cows. With these small herds, it can be uneconomical to buy a stock bull; farmers can access AI sires – across many breeds – at a relatively low cost.

Advantages of using AI:
  • No need for stock bull and removes associated costs and risks;
  • A range of proven, genetically superior sires of different breeds can be used;
  • It allows selective mating of cows or heifers to improve particular traits within the herd. For example, proven easy-calving bulls on replacement heifers;
  • It offers higher reliability;
  • The risk of bull infertility is eliminated.

Secondly, health and safety has to come into it. Bulls – like any other animal – can be unpredictable, so when you don’t have a bull around the farm, the risk of an accident is reduced.

In addition, when it comes to mating replacement heifers, some stock bulls are not suited. With AI, farmers can choose easy-calving sires across a variety of breeds.

Also with AI, farmers can use very reliable sires. As a rule of thumb, farmers using AI on heifers need to be using sires with over 90% for reliability and <5% for calving difficulty.

Disadvantages of AI:
  • Time consuming for part-time farmers;
  • Close monitoring of animals required for heat detection;
  • Handling facilities needed for insemination;
  • Gathering of cows or heifers when bulling.

Furthermore, handling facilities can be a problem on some farms. The reason why conception rates are poor when it comes to AI is because a lot of the animals presented are not in heat – they are either too early or too late.

In order to run a successful AI programme, careful management and observation is needed. A high-failure rate can be attributed to many factors, including: observing animals at the wrong times; and poor body condition score (BCS).

Heat detection is extremely important when it comes to implementing a successful AI programme; observing animals early in the morning and late in the evening is recommended.

Identifying cows in heat can be difficult and there are many heat detection methods which can help highlight bulling cows and this is particularly important for herds using AI.

When heat has been identified farmers should work off the ‘am:pm’ rule – where cows have been seen bulling for the first time in the morning, they should be inseminated that evening. Cows identified in the evening time should be inseminated the following morning.