Here's a rundown on various natural vs. Al breeding systems.

Time and again the greatest opportunity I see in all herds I work with is through genetic improvement. This doesn't mean buying the most expensive bull you can find and throwing him on a bunch of inconsistent, mongrelized cattle that have never been selected for production efficiency and expect a miracle.

At today's price level, it's difficult to justify spending more than about $2,250 for a range bull. With the synchronization programs either currently or soon to be approved, the cost of AI per pregnancy can compete very favorably with as low as a $1,750 range bull.

Let's look at three range bulls. One is purchased for $1,750, the second for $2,750 and the third for $3,750. Each will have a $500 salvage value and last an average of five years. Each will be exposed to 30 females annually and will have a 92.5% pregnancy rate (see Table 1). We will not assume any bull death loss, which would make the bull breeding numbers look even worse.

There are a number of different AI programs, and I've used nearly all. I'm currently using several different programs across the country on 7,500 females. The newest one we're using is the Co-Sync program developed at Colorado State University. It uses a combination of GnRH, heat detection, prostaglandin and another shot of GnRH.

The Co-Sync Program Cost synchronization treatment, excluding labor and semen, is $13.30 per AI service. The labor cost is dependent on the number of cows to be AI'd in any given period. It's possible to AI as many as 1,000 head in a day without elaborate facilities. In the double breeding setups I've designed, it's not uncommon to breed one female every 30-60 seconds or 600 head/day. If it takes six people to do this at $100/day each, that's $1/head for labor. For argument's sake, we'll put $1.50/head in labor. Per-service AI cost (excluding semen) is now $14.80.

Semen costs vary about as much as used car costs. It's best to select several AI bull candidates from the EPDs (Expected Progeny Differences) that match or exceed your goals, then call those bulls' owners to see who's ready to "make a deal."

You get the best semen prices when you buy in volume, so co-op with a neighbor or contact AGRI-PLAN and get in on our collective buying program. Normally, we are able to get very high-quality bull semen at $3-5/unit. Again, for the sake of argument, we'll plug in $6/unit (see Table 2).

Conclusion: According to published data, AI pregnancy rates of over 60% with the Co-Sync Program are not uncommon. Therefore, using our assumptions, breeding with bulls of $2,500 or more is more costly per pregnancy than breeding AI no matter what the environment or region.

Assuming even the worst result (50%) and $1,750 bulls, the per-pregnancy cost with AI is only $20.80 more!

The Syncro-Mate B System

With Syncro-Mate B (SMB), semen cost will remain the same but labor will increase by 50 "cents"/head (20% more will go through the chute three times) and treatment cost per exposed female will decrease. At one time, I was part of an organization that was the largest end user of SMB in the world.

The other difference between the SMB System and the Co-Sync Program is that with SMB (on average) you will have a lower AI success rate (40-45%) (see Table 3).

Conclusion: SMB is more inconvenient to use than the Co-Sync Program but may be slightly lower on a per-pregnancy basis. When comparing the published success of Co-Sync (60%) to SMB (45%) the costs are very comparable: $34.67 and $33.89, respectively.

Electronic Heat Detection Using HeatWatch saves time and labor over a traditional "heat detected" AI program. It will also improve detection and pregnancy success and decrease the required skill level of the cowboys involved. Heat detection is not a science; it's an art. The HeatWatch system turns the process into a science. Because of the computerized compilation of mounts and their duration, a more accurate insemination time can also be achieved. For purposes of illustration, we'll assume using the HeatWatch system on 500 cows/year. As with all other methods, Opportunity Costs are calculated at 8.25%.

Initial Software Cost:--$4,000 Life Expectancy:--7 years Salvage Value--$0.00 Cost Per Year (Including Opportunity Cost): --$901.43 Cost Per Female Exposed:-- $1.80

Transmitter Cost:--$55/Patch Life Expectancy:--5 years Salvage Value--$0.00 Cost Per Year (Including Opportunity Cost):--$11.00

There will be no synchronization treatment cost. Labor costs will be much higher than synchronization, though lower than traditional observed heat detection. For our purposes here we will assume a 21-day AI program, using three people to gather and AI the females that indicate estrous via the electronic system. In 1997 on one ranch we AI'd 984 of 1,001 head of mature cows (98.3%) in the first 21 days using HeatWatch. Our AI pregnancy rate for the 984 head was 79%.

If three people were used for 21 days at $100/day/person, total labor cost would be $6,300 or $12.60/Exposed Female. Semen is again priced at $6/unit on the average (see Table 4).

Conclusion: For the commercial cow-calf man it is very difficult to cost justify a HeatWatch system unless they're in an extreme value-added program (i.e., Super Heifers) or are using bulls with an average cost of more than $2,750.

However, for the seedstock producer wanting and needing every pregnancy to be an AI pregnancy and early in the season, HeatWatch may well be a very attractive alternative to the traditional means of observed heat and AI.

This is especially true when considering the difficulty one has with finding truly qualified heat detection and AI technicians. In addition, because HeatWatch is a wide ranging, electronic heat detection system, females may be placed on a larger acreage reducing feed costs or eliminating excess feed entirely. The 1,001 head of cows previously mentioned were AI'd on two 600+ acre sub-irrigated meadows using no supplemental feed.

Traditional Heat Detection Traditional AI will require additional labor and possibly additional feed costs if, in fact, cattle are kept in a closed area for heat detection. If the program is performed after grass has come and/or in an intensive grazing system during the growing season, no additional feed will be necessary. Normally, traditional heat detection will result in a 70-85% AI success rate (see Table 5).

Conclusion: As with most other AI systems, the traditional systems compare favorably with that of breeding naturally to a bull on a per-pregnancy cost basis.

In the last 10 years, AI has changed the entire dairy industry and revolutionized the hog industry. Fifteen years ago, the hog industry AI'd only 5%; today it AI's over 95%. It's time our industry takes advantage of one or more of the many AI systems. The cost can and should be less on a per-pregnancy basis.

Next month: The benefits of AI to your bottom line.

Tom Hogan owns and operates AGRI-PLAN Corp., an operational efficiency and financial management consulting firm. For more information or to order his 100+ page manual, "Planning Your Way To Profit," which guides you through the development of an Integrated Business Management Plan (IBMP), call 800/793-1671 or e-mail:

AGRIPLAN@compuserve.com