By Katrina Huffstutler
Two industry experts offer 9 tips
for getting the most out of artificial insemination.
There aren't many shortcuts in the cattle industry — no easy button, no crystal ball.
But there are tools that aid genetic improvement. One of the most powerful and effective is artificial insemination (AI). Outside of embryo transfer, it's the fastest method for upgrading your genetics and improving your cattle. But there's a lot that goes into a successful AI program, so we visited with Carl Rugg, president and owner of Bovine Elite, and Roger Wann, district sales manager for ABS Global, to get their most-shared advice.
Don't use unproven methods to thaw semen.
Rugg spent his graduate school days researching thawing methods for semen in French straws. Needless to say, he has a wealth of knowledge when it comes to proper handling techniques and stresses their significance.
He says it is extremely important to maintain the liquid nitrogen levels in your tank to keep the semen frozen until the exact time you begin to thaw it. When you are ready to remove an individual straw to thaw, he recommends pulling it quickly and precisely from the tank, which should be located right next to the thaw bath.
Rugg says the water bath should be maintained at 95 degrees Fahrenheit, a temperature
that has been tested and tested again in the industry.
While there are other ways to thaw semen in French straws, Rugg says the warm water thaw method has been determined to be the best and most consistent.
"There have been some other recommendations out there from other companies, but I don't believe they are recommending a sound practice when they talk about thawing semen either in the cow or in your pocket or any of those methods that are not warm water thaw," Rugg says. "We've tested it on thousands and thousands of cows and it is the most consistent thaw method. It thaws that semen in the straw in a manner that is uniform and quick."
Do know your limits.
Wann says inseminator fatigue affects everyone differently, but should be prevented whenever possible. While some accomplished technicians are capable of inseminating up to 100 head at a time, others may tire after 10 to 15 head.
"Be sure you have enough arms available to do the job you are planning," he says.
Do get everything ready ahead of time.
Preparation is key when AI-ing cattle, Rugg says.
"Before you even get a cow into the squeeze chute or holding facility, you want to make sure you have all of your equipment together and that it's all working properly," he says.
That includes making sure the thawing bath is at the proper temperature as well as gathering all of the necessary materials.
In addition to the actual semen and thawing bath, you'll need plastic shoulder-length gloves, paper towels, the proper insemination syringe, and a pen or pencil and paper to take notes, Rugg says.
"Keeping good records is just part of the process," he says. Rugg suggests writing down which bull was used and any notes about the actual process, even including cow behavior.
"Maybe she was a little more difficult in the chute or something — you'll want to know that for next time," he says.
Don't underestimate the importance of herd health and nutrition.
Rugg and Wann both stress AI success begins long before the female comes into heat. For Wann, that means consulting with a veterinarian to make sure you're vaccinating for the right diseases for your area, and keeping an eye on females' body condition.
"If your cows are in a condition score of 5 or better and on an increasing plane of nutrition, their biological system will turn on for reproduction," Wann says.
Do understand your synchronization protocol.
With more and more cattle being synchronized these days, Wann says some of the biggest problems he sees stem from producers not understanding the synchronization protocol they are using, or from trying to develop their own protocol.
That's why his No. 1 piece of advice, whether he's speaking at an AI school or with a producer, is to follow a recommended protocol and make sure you understand it.
"There is a list issued twice a year by the Beef Reproduction Task Force [made up of AI company personnel, university researchers, drug company reps and veterinarians] that can be found in all major beef cattle AI catalogs and is available through Extension," he says. "The protocols change as we get more research data and we learn more, so it's important to be following the most up-to-date recommendations."
He says it is important to use these protocols as directed, not only because they are backed by science and work, but also because they are FDA-approved.
"There are some protocols out there that use unproven drugs and are not legal," Wann says. "Stick with the science, stick with the data and use the recommend protocols as they are listed."
Don't forget to clean.
For several reasons, Rugg is a big proponent of making sure everything is clean and sanitary when inseminating cattle — especially the cow herself.
"Have the cows as clean as possible" he says. "You've got your plastic sleeve-covered arm in the rectum of that cow. Make sure she's clean, that the manure is cleaned out and you have a good spot to work in. If you get her cleaned out, you can better feel through that rectal wall to the reproductive tract."
Do time it right.
Timing is everything when it comes to artificial insemination, and you can't breed them at the right time if you can't tell when the right time is.
"You're going to have to be able to detect when these cows are in heat to know when to breed them, aiming to inseminate them as close to ovulation as possible," Rugg says.
He says there are a number of good heat detection aids available, though some choose to use a teaser bull or their own judgment to determine timing. Research indicates generally the best time to breed females is 12 hours after they are first determined to be in standing heat, but Rugg adds that some producers may elect to breed them again at the 16-hour mark to increase conception rates.
Don't use the same techniques for cows and heifers.
Heifers and cows respond differently and must be treated differently to achieve maximum success and conception rates. Wann says it is important to make sure you are administering the right product at the right dosage at the right time.
"One of the big mistakes people make is using a cow protocol for a heifer and vice versa," Wann says. "But those 2 classes of cattle don't always respond the same."
Don't let other duties distract you.
Focus is of utmost importance when breeding cattle, Rugg says. He recommends planning ahead and devoting yourself completely to the task at hand on breeding day.
"You don't want to have to do anything at the last minute, because inevitably you will find a situation that won't allow you to make the proper decisions, and you might have to compromise what you want to do," Rugg says.
"Breeding those cows needs to be your sole project. Our most successful clients, when it comes to the AI program, that's what they focus on. They don't focus on baling hay or moving cattle to the north 40 or fixing the tractor. They are completely involved in the AI process and focusing on that tool."