Time, observed Sir Francis Bacon, is the greatest innovator. While that may be, a dose of cowboy logic can certainly help things along.
Take, for instance, the concept and practice of artificial insemination (AI). It's been around awhile now, and innovation over time has improved its ability to help cattlemen breed better cattle.
Now, splice in the cowboy logic, supplied in this instance by Carl Hansen, his brother Chris and dad Ed, who comprise both the brain trust and the elbow grease on the Hansen Ranch, a 350-head commercial cow-calf operation in northern Colorado near Livermore. While they've been easing into an AI program with their mature cows the past five years, they've approached it with a slightly different twist.
The Hansens buy genetically superior bulls, have them collected, and use the semen AI on a portion of their commercial cows.
That kind of bull doesn't come cheap — the Hansens will pay more than twice what they'd spend on an average range bull. But they don't mind. They've always paid good money for the best bulls they could buy. Carl's dad and grandfather both hold that buying bulls isn't the place to save money. “But realistically, you can only afford to spend so much on a range bull and make him pay for himself,” Carl observes.
And that's where the innovative cowboy logic kicked in.
The Hansens weren't new to the concept and practice of AI. They'd been breeding their 40-50 replacement heifers artificially since the mid '90s, so they had an idea of what they were doing and how to do it. And based on the success they saw with their heifers, they began to wonder if it might be feasible with their mature cows, too.
They first took their leap of faith five years ago, starting slowly at first, and gradually increasing the number of cows they bred AI every year. They bred about half their mature cows AI this breeding season and anticipate breeding their entire cow herd AI next spring.
On the natural-service side, they pay an average of $3,000 for a good range bull. Assume $1,000 salvage value, and the cost is $2,000. “We figure our range bulls will last an average of five years,” Carl says.
They ranch in the foothills of the Rockies, running one bull/15 cows. Giving the bull the benefit of the doubt, Hansen calculates it will sire 75 calves over its five-year productive lifetime. “You take that against your $2,000 cost/bull and you have a $27/calf average,” he says, admitting his figures will change from year to year based on market prices.
“On the AI side, you go with a $7,500 bull with the same salvage value. Then I add another $1,000 on top of that with the collection of 500 straws of semen at $2/straw, and that gets you back to your original $7,500/bull cost,” he says. “If we figure 64% conception (a conservative estimate that they usually beat), we should get 320 calves out of those 500 straws. Put that against your $7,500 bull and you've got a $23/calf cost.” Add $5 for the cost of AI supplies and the cost per calf is about the same as natural service.
Given that they use their high-dollar bulls as part of their clean-up crew, the associated costs of keeping bulls are no different. And they've been able to reduce their bull inventory by at least half on the cows they breed AI, which cuts cost and adds more dollars per cow.
Bottom line is quality
But the economic benefits described above really aren't the bottom line for the Hansens. “The number-one thing we've seen is it's improved our replacement heifers dramatically,” Hansen says. “And that has a direct effect on our overall herd quality.”
Beyond that, their focus is to achieve a consistently high overall conception rate. In 2008, that was 96.6%, a 1.5% increase over the last three years. Of that, they figure they're getting a 67% conception rate from their AI breeding, based on the number of calves born the first week of the calving season.
On top of that, they've seen a 12% increase overall in the number of cows that calve in the first 21 days, with 87% of the entire herd calving in the first cycle. “That's huge,” Hansen says.
While a lot of factors go into achieving a consistently high AI conception rate, Hansen thinks part of their success is because they do all the breeding themselves. They start heat checking and breeding the morning they synchronize, continuing to heat check and breed cows for the next 72 hours.
Three days after they synchronize, they mass breed their cattle in bunches of 100 each. But in every batch there are always cows in standing heat the morning they begin mass breeding. Those are sorted off and bred later in the day. This system, they believe, yields higher conception. “I don't know how much,” he says, “but I've got to believe it helps.”
And they've seen a 5% increase in weaning weights, which last year averaged right at 800 lbs. for their steers. That increase, Hansen says, comes primarily from having more calves born early in the calving season.
Their goal is a 45-day calving season. Breeding begins April 5 with their first-calf heifers; everything they'll breed artificially is bred by April 12. They calve in January-February and with their AI program, the bulk of the calves are born early in the calving season. “And that's where you get your weaning-weight increase,” he says.
A 5% increase in weaning weights isn't the only reason they began their AI program. But it's not a bad bonus prize. “The way we look at it, we're increasing our weaning weights by bringing the bottom end up,” Hansen notes. And their buyer tells them the calves perform well at the feedyard and packing plant.
Their cowherd is largely Angus-based and the cows in the AI program have been bred to Angus bulls, although last year they bought a black Gelbvieh to use AI. Their AI cows are typically seven years of age and younger, with the balance, the older cows, bred natural service to black Gelbvieh bulls.
In the five years they've been breeding their cows AI, they've purchased and collected three bulls. This breeding season, in addition to buying and collecting a new bull, they bought some semen, as well. “We figure we can probably spend as high as $20/straw on semen and still be ahead of the game,” Hansen says. “And, you can get a pretty good bull for $20/straw.”
He says embarking on an AI program has increased the intensiveness of their management. “We haven't done it (AI) a lot, but we have done it enough to know that every part of the chain in that process is very important and if you don't do every one of them right, you're not going to get the results you want. That's all the way from conditioning your cows to synchronizing them, heat checking and the time you spend breeding. There are a lot of variables.”
However, he says if you've got a good set of working pens and a decent chute, you're equipped to handle AI. “It's a lot of effort, but you know your results will be good.”
Part of that extra effort is the record-keeping necessary to ensure their matings are correct. Just as with a purebred herd, he says they have to keep good track when they start selecting females. “In a cowherd of 350, by the time you use 500 straws of semen, you need to be looking for a different bull. It's like everything in the cattle industry; you've got to plan down the road a little ways.”
Based on their experience with their heifers, they felt comfortable moving into AI with their cows. But they still began slowly, learning as they went and building their program in steps. And, Hansen says, they're still learning as they go, adjusting and adapting as time goes on.
“The AI program has allowed us to buy a much higher quality bull and keep our costs down,” he says. “Over the last three years, we've seen some very good results. But we just started. This was only our fifth spring, so we have a lot to learn and a lot more avenues to go down. But, at this point, it's worked very well for us.”