Should more suckler farms be using AI?

Currently, the amount of suckler farms in Ireland using AI is low; somewhere in the region of 23% of progeny from the suckler herd were bred to AI in 2017.

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.

Teagasc’s Prof. Donagh Berry outlined – at the recent Irish Grassland Association Beef Conference and Farm Walk – that the sky is the limit when it comes to breeding.

However, he warned that breeding the best with the best doesn’t always result in the best progeny. He also highlighted data recording – or the lack of it – as a major problem when it comes to generating genetic evaluations.

“I would never use a stock bull on my farm because it will come no where near the reliability that I need it to be.

“And if it does, I won’t be able to use him because he will be 20 years old. I would encourage farmers to use genetically superior AI – not just AI for the sake of AI.

“One way to get around low reliability is to use a team of bulls; this spreads the risk. If farmers use a team of bulls – especially if they are unrelated – the reliability of these bulls will stay the same on average.

“For example, if a farmer uses a team of five bulls – each with 50% reliability – the reliability of their average genetic merit is 92% – it is the equivalent of using one bull with 92% reliability,” he explained.

Advantages and disadvantages of AI

Speaking to AgriLand, Teagasc’s Vivian Silke outlined some of the advantages and disadvantages of using AI on beef farms.

Vivian said: “Firstly, the average size of the suckler herd in Ireland is less than 20 cows. With these small herds, it is 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.

“Health and safety has to come into it. When you don’t have a bull around the farm, farmers are minimising the risk of injury or death. A bull is fine for the breeding season, but he can cause problems for the rest of the year.”

“When it comes to replacement heifers, some stock bulls are not suited. With AI, farmers can chose easy-calving sires across a variety of breeds,” he added.

“Also with AI, farmers can use very reliable sires. 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.

Vivian added: “Handling facilities can be a problem. 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; it comes down to management.”

Carrying out AI

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 evenings 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.

Also Read: 6 aids to take the ‘guesswork’ out of heat detection

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.