Benefits of reproductive technologies like estrus synchronization (ES) for natural or artificial breeding are old news.

“Improving traits of major economic importance in beef cattle can be accomplished most rapidly through the selection of genetically superior sires and widespread use of artificial insemination (AI),” says David Patterson, University of Missouri (MU) animal science professor. “Procedures that facilitate ES in estrous cycling females and induction of an ovulatory estrus in peripubertal heifers and anestrous postpartum cows will increase reproductive rate and expedite genetic progress.”

Moreover, Patterson explains using AI and ES together can increase profits through changes in calving distribution patterns; a higher percentage of cows calving during a more concentrated timeframe; and more calves hitting the ground earlier in the season, making them older and heavier at weaning time.

Yet, these technologies continue to gather dust.

AI use in the industry

According to the most recent Cow-Calf Survey, conducted in 2007 by the National Animal Health Monitoring Service, 5.2% of mature cows were bred via AI exclusively or followed up with by natural service in 2007; 16.3% for heifers.

As for utilizing AI or natural breeding in tandem with ES, Patterson explains, “Although hormonal treatment of heifers and cows to group estrous cycles has been a commercial reality for more than 30 years, beef producers have been slow to adopt it.”

Patterson reckons part of the slow rate of ES adoption stems from producers who tried it but failed because the females used were poor candidates. Specifically, heifers that hadn’t yet reached puberty and cows that didn’t return to normal estrous cycles following calving.

With deliberate selection of proven sires and fixed-time AI (FTAI), which requires ES, Patterson points out producers can quickly make a gargantuan stride in genetic improvement. Using ultrasound to determine pregnancy in order to re-synchronize and re-breed cows and heifers that don’t conceive with the first breeding ratchets the speed up another notch. Using sexed semen can improve it further.

In an MU demonstration project, FTAI was utilized in 73 herds across the Missouri, accounting for 7,028 cows. The average pregnancy rate with a single insemination was 62%. Keep in mind there is no heat detection with FTAI, which eliminates a significant barrier that existed before reliable, economic AI synchronization strategies were developed.

“The progress that has been made in developing these technologies over the past 10 years has been phenomenal,” Patterson says.

Incidentally, that 62% average pregnancy rate is in line with natural breeding and no synchronization; just turning the bulls in.

Mike Smith, MU professor of reproductive physiology, explained at the Applied Reproductive Strategies for Beef Cattle Conference in August: “For natural service, expected pregnancy rates are normally 60-70% during 21 days of breeding, assuming the bulls are fertile and that 100% of the cows and heifers are cycling. However, a pregnancy rate of 60%-70% over 21 days is unusually high for natural service since rarely are all the heifers and cows cycling at the start of breeding season.”

Smith emphasizes a common cause for poor FTAI performance is using cows and females that are poor candidates, such as heifers that haven’t yet reached 65% of their mature weight or cows in poor body condition.

According to Patterson, producers involved in the demonstration project had few questions about the necessary steps and protocols required by FTAI. Instead, most questions revolved around sire selection, determining which profile of traits they should consider in potential sires, relative to their cowherds.

Market The Increased Value

Folks at MU also continue to demonstrate the power of combining FTAI with the use of high-accuracy sires at the university’s Thompson Farm Research Center (TFRC). Several years ago, they started aiming the cowherd there toward production of premium-quality beef – Prime and the upper two-thirds of Choice – a carcass specification for Certified Angus Beef® (CAB®). All of the heifers and cows there are exposed to one round of AI, followed by clean-up bulls for a 60-day breeding season.

Since 2008, 272 steers from the MU research herd were fed at Irsik and Doll Feed Yard at Garden City, KS. Of the 198 steers that were sired by high accuracy AI sires, 100% graded Choice or higher, 55% qualified for CAB, and 31% graded Prime.  Of the 74 steers resulting from natural service, 96% graded Choice or higher, 43% qualified for CAB and 15% graded Prime.  Currently, 24% of all black-hided cattle in the U.S. qualify for CAB, and only 3% grade Prime. Steers from TFRC received first place in the National Angus Carcass Challenge for the Central Region during the 2nd quarter in 2010 and 2011.

Patterson believes one reason for the slow adoption of reproductive management technologies like FTAI has been a lack of clarity regarding the economic incentives for cattle that can result from the strategies.

Though premiums have long existed for higher quality-grading cattle, higher-yielding cattle and the like, it’s taken awhile for producers to see the direct incentive if they don’t retain ownership in their cattle through the feedlot. That’s begun to change, especially with quality-grade incentives tied to large-scale, added-value programs like CAB. In turn, more order buyers are paying more for calves with that kind of potential.

“Economics is the carrot that must be there,” Patterson says. He adds, however, “If I’m going to use FTAI and improved genetics, I’ve got to be a better marketer. I can’t market those cattle with added value through the same old marketing channels.”

Aside from the genetic strides these technologies enable within individual herds, Patterson believes increased adoption of their use is essential if the U.S. beef industry is to remain competitive globally.

“The U.S. can produce more high-quality beef than anywhere in the world, and we have the tools to produce even more,” Patterson says. “But we need to have, and maintain, that focus as an industry.”

Editor’s note: If you want to consider the possibilities of AI, ES and FTAI, consider these free, online sources:

• http://j.mp/x8Wsoc – This Applied Reproductive Strategies in Beef Cattle (ARSBC) website includes ES protocols for cows and heifers presented in an easily digested manner. You can also access proceedings from ARSBC conferences like those mentioned in this article.

• University of Missouri Learning modules at http://j.mp/z5UYPE  provide online presentations on the fundamentals of beef repro
duction management and ES.