Given the fact only about 2-3% of all commercial beef cows are bred artificially in the United States each year, artificial insemination (AI) obviously hasn't taken the ranching community by storm. But, relative to the actual cost of AI compared to natural service, there is more upside potential to a semen jug than some producers have considered.

“Roughly, over three seasons of using a bull, it costs me about $54/pregnancy, and using AI and clean-up bulls it's about $27,” says Al Atkins of the A.L. Ranch at Halsey, NE. Atkins AI's about half of his cow herd each year — all of the heifers and a portion of the mature cows.

In Atkins' case, he explains part of the savings comes with the fact that running fewer bulls means that he loses fewer to injury.

Likewise, Wayne Eatinger of Eatinger Cattle Company at Thedford, NE, figures he can AI his cow herd for about $28/pregnancy, compared to $48 using bulls valued at $3,000/head. (Table 1).

Although the bull costs each ranch uses to conduct an economic comparison certainly shifts the weight of the AI versus natural breeding equation, even pegging average bull procurement costs at $1,700/head, the price of a pregnancy was exactly the same — $28 — in a study conducted at the University of Nebraska (UN) several years ago.

“You can sure save some money using AI, plus you can use some superior genetics,” says Eatinger. He's artificially inseminated every cow on his ranch since about 1980.

Selection Power

In fact, the ability to match specific bulls to specific cows is a more significant value driver than the cost savings for some producers. For example, Jim Gosey, UN beef Extension specialist points out, “If you're trying to put together a uniform group of calves to fit a specific market target, you can breed a herd of cows to one progeny-proven bull and get a jumpstart on reaching your target marker quicker.”

Moreover, AI allows producers like Atkins to aim for more than one target at once. He explains, “On heifers (about 100 bred each year), I'm selecting sires more for replacement traits. On cows, I'm looking for bulls that offer some carcass value.” Whether he retains ownership in the calves or not, Atkins has been following his calves through the Nebraska Corn Fed Beef program for the past five years.

“The question is where do you get the bulls you need to begin with,” says Eatinger, who is also a representative for ABS Global. “And, every bull you're running displaces about a cow and half, so you're running fewer cows than you could.”

AI Requires Extra Commitment, Too

So, why do so few producers pluck opportunity from a semen tank?

Gosey thinks the extra labor and time commitment required of AI is the main reason. He explains, “If you don't have the skills to do it yourself, you have to determine whether or not you can hire the skills locally and make it work.”

For the record, ranchers who already AI are usually a good source for finding the necessary skills. Both Eatinger and Atkins AI a fair number of cattle for their neighbors each year.

Table 1. AI vs. natural breeding cost comparison

Natural service
Bull purchase price $3,000
+ Interest (8.5% × 3 yrs.) 765
- Salvage value 1,000
$2,756/3 years use = $921/year
+ annual semen check 20
+ annual maintenance 500
Annual bull cost $1,441/30 cows bred = $48
Pregnancy cost $48/pregnancy
AI-no synchronization
Semen $14.00
+Clean-up bull cost (off-season @ $500) 8.88
+ Day help for heat detecting 2.77
+ Supplies .22
+ 8.5% interest 2.20
Pregnancy cost $28.07/pregnancy
Source: Eatinger Cattle Co.

Besides labor though, Gosey says, “There has been a lack of synchronization programs that allow mass breeding of cows on a single day with higher pregnancy rates.” He thinks a 60% pregnancy rate would be the minimum to get more commercial producers interested.

Atkins gets about 65% pregnancy on his mature cows using a synchronization program that includes GnRH and Lutalyse. He gets about 70% on his heifers synchronizing with MGA and Lutalyse. And, Eatinger is running about 75% on his cows, opting to heat-detect rather than use synchronization.

Of course, what scares some producers most is the threat of a complete bust using synchronization. End up with a 30-40% pregnancy rate as an example, and the lost semen and labor are the least of your worries.

“If that happens, you lose a heat cycle on a big percentage of the cows and that costs you a lot of pounds,” says Gosey.

With that in mind, timing and preparation are indeed everything when it comes to AI since it can be fairly unforgiving to people trying to take nutritional shortcuts.

“You've got to have these cattle ready to breed because there is no cure for that problem. You have to have them up and in shape, especially if you're going to use a synchronization program,” says Eatinger.

And, in places like Nebraska, Gosey points out a hard winter has left many cows thinner by about one body condition score than normal. He suggests, “In areas like this it would be wise to leave 2- and 3-year-old females out of the AI plans this year and concentrate on using AI only on the mature cows.”

“Make sure your cows are bulling,” says Atkins. “Don't spend the time and the money and get people in there to AI if the cows aren't in condition.”