What’s the best decision you’ve ever made for your ranch? Glenfield, ND, Angus breeders Justin and Nathan Spickler say it’s replacing heat detection with a synchronization program during artificial insemination (AI) – and it happened out of necessity.

Faced with drought conditions about six years ago, the brothers, Justin, 35, and Nathan, 29, were in a bind. “Conditions were dry, and we had to graze our AI pastures before the AI season. This forced us to synchronize our entire cowherd, something we said we could never make work,” Justin says.

The brothers breed 450 registered Angus cows in the summer and have another 150 cows in their fall-calving herd. But, to their surprise, synchronizing the cows and utilizing heat detection and AI for 12 days worked well for their large operation. Nathan says, “It simplified our life compared to heat detecting for 21 days.”

Today, they not only continue to synchronize and AI the entire herd, but have made other changes as well.

 Justin explains, “The change to synchronization has worked so well for us that we decided to re-evaluate nearly every management practice we use. With an open mind, we seek better ways to accomplish our goals.”

The Spickler operation was started in 1943 by Nathan and Justin’s grandparents. It ran Hereford cattle until the early ’80s when the boys’ dad Harold Spickler switched to commercial cattle. In January 1997, the Spicklers began building a registered Angus herd.

Justin joined his father in the operation in 2001 after college, but Harold tragically succumbed to cancer in February 2003. Nathan completed college and returned to the ranch full-time in 2006. Today, the brothers are carrying on the dream of building a respected Angus seedstock operation.

Today, Justin and his wife Sara have four children: Wyatt, 7; Will, 6; Jessa, 4; and Watson, 2; Nathan and his wife Emily have three children: twins Haylie and Trace, 4; and Kadence, 1. They’ve grown their Angus herd to 600 cows and hold an annual production sale featuring bulls and heifers the first Monday in May. Steers, cull heifers and cull cows are finished at the ranch.

In addition to synchronization, the Spicklers have tapped breeding and genetic technology as opportunities to enhance their herd. They credit aggressive use of embryo transfer (ET) as another beneficial change.

When the opportunity to purchase a few commercial cows from a neighbor arose, the brothers utilized ET to allow those cows to have registered calves. “That small project led us to the point that we now implant embryos in nearly 25% of our cowherd each year,” Justin says.

Nathan adds, “This has definitely strengthened our calf crop as approximately 20% of our weakest producing cows aren’t raising their own genetics, but rather helping us propagate elite females.”

To advance their genetics even more, they use DNA technology as an evaluation tool. Justin says, “With the increased accuracy credited to DNA profiles, we have become more comfortable with this tool for analysis. We recognize that DNA profiles on elite individual animals can be very valuable.”

While phenotype currently remains their primary means of evaluation, they agree that they’ll continue using DNA analysis and envision a day when they have a DNA profile on every heifer retained as a replacement.

Keeping an eye on the future

Looking ahead, Justin says, “We’ll continue to adapt to a rapidly changing world with our first priority being our responsibility to take care of our customers and make genetics available to keep their programs moving forward. I also expect that we’ll continue to analyze every aspect of our business as to whether there’s a better way to accomplish our goals.”

He and Nathan credit their college education at North Dakota State University for teaching them to think and adapt. “Those are two very useful tools as we deal with issues that arise in the future,” Justin says.

Nathan concludes, “A main goal for us is to not get complacent with our herd – to always seek new genetics and strive to improve our cattle so we can continually offer a better, more profitable product for our customers.” His advice to others returning to a family operation is to look for opportunities. “Don’t be afraid to try new ideas and truly believe in the product you are supplying.”

Select Synch protocol

In designing their herd synchronization program, Justin and Nathan Spickler credit fellow Angus breeder Troy Vollmer, Wing, ND, with sharing his experiences with synchronization and artificial insemination (AI) in his herd. Vollmer and the Spicklers have followed the Select Sync protocol outlined in the annual Select Sires AI directory.

The Spicklers typically synchronize heifers five days before the cows, and follow these steps for both groups:

  • Day 0: Administer a GNRH shot.
  • Day 5: Begin heat detection and AI, which continues for seven days.
  • Day 7: Administer prostaglandin.
  • Day 9 and 10: Majority of the cows begin to show standing heat and are AI’d.
  • Day 11 and 12: A few stragglers will cycle.

“We’ve followed this AI protocol for several years. We only AI cows or heifers with observed heats; we don’t time breed anything,” Justin says.

He reports they typically see an 85% response to the protocol from day 5 to day 12, and usually have a 70%-75% AI conception rate.  

“The result is that 60% of our calf crop is sired by AI bulls,” Justin says. Cows are put with bulls after the AI protocol is finished. “We usually average about 75% of calves born in the first 21 days, and 90% in the first 42 days, with the balance in the last cycle. With this sync protocol, we’ve switched from a 63-day breeding season to a 68-day season. As a result, we allow our cows one chance at an AI conception and three chances at natural conception with the bulls.”

The Spicklers say the grouped calving season made possible by synchronization has been a boon for management.

“We get a lot of calves in a 10-day window in late March. So, instead of 10-15 calves/day, we’ll get 15-25 calves. In early April, calving slows down for a week, allowing us time to get sale cattle ready for our May sale,” Justin explains. By mid-April, they can also turn the remaining cows and heifers on grass to calve in the pasture.

Kindra Gordon is a freelance writer based in Whitewood, SD.