The past 60 years have seen many advances in the field of reproductive biotechnology, including artificial insemination (AI), embryo transfer, sexed semen and cloning.

One of the oldest reproductive technologies available to beef producers - and perhaps the most valuable tool for meeting production and economic goals - is AI.

However, less than 10% of U.S. beef producers currently use AI. In contrast, the use of AI has played a key role in the 256% increase in milk production per lactation in the dairy industry. And, the swine and poultry industries have made similar improvements in feed efficiency and product consistency.

Why are beef producers so reluctant to use AI? A recent Colorado State University survey of Colorado beef producers found they thought AI was too costly, too labor intensive and too time consuming. Others felt they didn't have adequate facilities, didn't know enough about the procedure or were concerned about lowered conception rates.

Granted, AI is more time consuming and labor intensive than simply turning the bull into the cowherd. But, AI allows producers to take advantage of superior genetics for growth, carcass and maternal traits to produce functional females that fit a given environment and produce slaughter offspring with the desired growth and carcass merit fitting the targeted market.

One example where AI can be used to increase production efficiency goals is a system using a rota-terminal crossbreeding scheme (F1 female crossed with a terminal sire breed. This would allow producers to use AI in the youngest cows. This takes advantage of superior, high-accuracy genetics for maternal traits to produce F1 female replacements while turning out a terminal sire on the remainder of the herd to produce calves meeting market specifications for growth and carcass attributes.

Commercially available sexed semen can make the above breeding scheme even more efficient. Producers could obtain a higher percentage of heifer calves from the AI program and eliminate many of the "by-product" F1 steers that fail to fit market specifications for growth and carcass merit.

Sexed semen would potentially allow producers to make use of superior growth and carcass genetics to produce male slaughter progeny from mature cows while taking advantage of maternal and calving ease genetics to produce female offspring out of younger cows in the herd. Those currently using AI will be the first to benefit from sexed semen when it's available to commercial beef producers.

AI is more costly, but it is not as costly as one might think. Estimated AI costs are about $5.55 more per pregnancy when compared to natural service. Remember in comparing costs that AI allows for the use of proven sires of known superior genetics and decreases the genetic risk associated with unproven, young sires.

Everybody knows a chain is only as strong as its weakest link. The same is true about AI. This chain is made up of four important links - cow fertility, semen handling and quality, AI technician and heat detection. If we do a good job in each of these areas, we should have a successful AI program resulting in pregnancy rates as good as those associated with natural service. Failure in one area can have disastrous effects.

AI requires a considerable investment in time and resources, but allows access to the most accurate and genetically superior sires available. The use of trait leaders will increase the speed of genetic progress and reduce the probability of genetic errors.

In the end, AI has the potential to empower the beef industry to produce the level of product quality and consistency demanded by consumers.

* Cow Fertility

Moderate to good body condition.

Effective vaccination program.

On gaining ration during breeding season.

* Semen Handling And Quality

Avoid unnecessary and extended exposure increased temperatures and UV light by:

-Assuring thaw water temperatures between 95 degrees and 98 degrees F.

-Thawing times of no less than 30 seconds and no more than 15 minutes.

-Drying straw thoroughly.

-Warming AI gun prior to use.

* AI Technician

Practice to become confident in your skills.

Hire skilled technician with proven pregnancy rates.

* Heat Detection

Check for a minimum of 30 minutes twice daily.

Estrous synchronization and heat detection aids may be useful.

The seedstock industry is the source of genetic improvement for the entire beef industry. The use of AI allows seedstock producers to rapidly and cost effectively propagate superior genetics. Seedstock producers who use AI will continue to have a decided advantage over those who don't in providing their customer with genetics that enhance their profitability in the pasture and on the rail.

Here's why AI use is growing:

* Estrous synchronization - more successful and user-friendly methods being further developed and used.

* Value-based marketing - pays premiums to commercial producers; therefore, it pays seedstock bull suppliers to raise superior cattle.

* Vertical coordination/integration - leads to more economies of size and an ability to adopt and use AI and other advancements as they become increasingly profitable to use.

* Sexed semen - increase calving ease in heifers by breeding for heifer calves, increase rate of genetic improvement, more efficiently produce maternal and terminal lines.

Like any other business, a commercial cow/calf operation needs goals focused on profitability and quality of life with a flexible plan to achieve those goals. Using AI and other technology can help facilitate this process.

In fact, when dealing with genetic advancement, without these tools it may take too long and cost too much to improve our cowherds to produce calves that consistently hit market specifications and have cows that are functional in our differing environments.

Technological advances have made carcass data collection affordable and more easily attainable. Producers can find alliances, auction yards or buyers that will help with this process. Once you know what the cowherd genetics are producing, one can then make decisions on how to best hit market and cowherd targets.

AI is an old technology but it's used by a small number of producers. Seedstock producers make rapid genetic advances through AI by matching EPD values and applying them to a large enough population to verify accuracy.

For the commercial producer, many studies have proven the benefit of AI use to complement a natural sire breeding program. AI offers the use of high-quality sires at low cost with knownand measurable traits.

>From a practical standpoint, a commercial cow/calf producer can use AI >where there are available facilities, easy access to the cowherd and a >willingness to commit to the program. At the very least, one should be >familiar with AI and select bulls from programs that utilize AI for >genetic supply and advancement. Once embarking on an AI program, the >producer should consider keeping the genetically superior heifer calves as >replacements.

The economic signals today focus on marbling. The markets are paying high premiums for Choice and Prime cattle. The recent concentration on maximizing growth and muscling, making cattle bigger and leaner has sacrificed the ability to marble.

Bigger cows can only adapt to a high-input environment. The good news is that moderate-sized cows selected for reproductive and maternal efficiency are more adaptable and often have more marbling.

AI sires are available that have accurate information on carcass, growth and maternal characteristics. It's important to balance increased marbling ability with other characteristics and not lose sight of the "big" picture.

For the last 32 years, we have used AI on a closed herd and measured that herd's performance. We select the better AI-sired calves for bulls to breed on our commercial cows and retain ownership on those calves to the rail. This gives us carcass information that along with the measured growth performance allows us to make genetic decisions that respond to the marketplace. Although most of our genetic selection occurs with the grandsire of the marketable calf, we are still able to make rapid changes and advancements.

Because not all breeds have carcass trait information, we've used other measurable traits to indicate the ability to marble when crossbreeding for hybrid vigor. The sooner more breeds generate accurate carcass data, the better job producers can do breeding cattle that meet specifications.

Profitability for the future hinges on an industry that is consumer focused. Market specifications with premiums and discounts will increasingly be the signals that producers use to make improvements.

Look for new advancements for measuring tenderness and be ready to implement them into a breeding program. AI use and technology are low-cost, effective tools to move the industry product in the right direction.