Using Artificial Insemination in the Suckler Herd

Approximately 23% of calves in beef herds are bred by Artificial Insemination (AI) in Ireland annually.

Such low usage of this well tested and effective technology is often associated with the difficulty and labour requirements for heat detection and gathering of animals for insemination. It must also be noted that land fragmentation and handling facilities becomes a hindrance in many cases.

The use of AI, allows for the facilitation of greater genetic progress and ease of management through the selection of genetically proven sires for terminal, maternal and ease of calving traits.

AI gives you the opportunity to select bulls across many different breeds and allowing access to elite genetics at a relatively low cost.

Nationally the average suckler cow herd is approx. 18 cows, therefore many farmers investing in an expensive stock bull may not be justifiable. In such cases AI offers a viable alternative.

Using AI

About 90% of failure rate is due to “management” problems while only 10% are attributed to the “cow”. Some of the management problems include not enough time spent observing cows or observing at wrong times for example at feeding.

Where AI is the chosen method of breeding, farmers must be committed to heat detection at least twice daily (early morning and late evening).

Using heat detection aids such as scratch cards, or tail painting can help determine which cows are in heat. An active vasectomised bull is useful in identifying cows either coming into or on heat. Remember to treat this bull as any other bull and think safety first.


In general beef cows will not recommence oestrous cycles until 50-55 days post calving, this is almost twice as long as dairy cows. The main reason for this is the strong maternal offspring bond that exists between the dam and her calf. This leaves a shorter interval for breeding so to meet a target of one calf per cow per year.

Participants in the BDGP programme should put a breeding plan in place to meet requirements for their replacement strategy. If you are using AI, from the 30th June 2016 at least 80% of AI used must be from 4 or 5 star bulls (within or across breed) on either the Terminal or Replacement Index.

Straws. Photo O'Gorman Photography

AI could have a role to play for those in the BDGP programme and satisfied with their current stock bull, it creates opportunities to breed suitable replacements without having to change the bull. By using AI there is also scope to use sexed semen, therefore limiting the number of cows you would need to submit for replacements.

Advantages of AI:

  • Avoids the need of a stock bull and associated costs
  • It offers to a range of proven, genetically superior bulls of different breeds.
  • It allows selective mating of cows/heifers to improve particular traits within your herd e.g. proven easy calving bulls on replacement heifers
  • Removes the hazard of having a bull on the farm
  • It offers higher reliability – a stock bull will have an overall reliability of approximately 30%, whereas well proven AI bulls can be as high as 90%
  • The risk of bull infertility is eliminated

Disadvantages of AI:

  • Close monitoring of animals required for heat detection
  • Handling facilities needed for insemination
  • Gathering of cows/heifers when on heat

Tips for using AI:

  • Careful checking for signs of heat in the early morning and late evening during the breeding season reduces the night interval and results in greater detection rates.
  • Separate the cows and calves during the breeding season. Breaking the cow/calf bond will help cows return to heat quicker. e.g suckling twice daily or creep grazing calves ahead of cow.
  • Have cows in good body condition. Ensure cows are on a rising plane of nutrition to promote a positive energy balance.
  • Using heat detection aids can improve the breeding management on farms.
  • Timing for insemination should be carried out following the “am-pm” rule.

For example animals seen on heat for the first time in the morning should be inseminated that evening and those seen in the evening should be submitted for AI the following morning. Once heat is detected contact your AI representative immediately

By Sean Mannion, Teagasc Adviser/Education Officer, Galway Clare Regional Unit