Since our beef herd calves in the fall, this week our family is starting the annual process of having our cows bred by artificial insemination (AI). The work isn't too hard, but it does take some time. However, we've not always used AI for breeding. Until about three or four years ago, we used a bull to breed our cows. I've had experience with keeping a bull and AI, and whether or not one or the other is best for your farm depends on a few things.
Number of Cows
We kept a bull for our herd of ten or so cows for quite a few years. However, if a farmer just has a handful of cows it may not be the best economic decision to keep a bull. While a bull provides a valuable service, he will still need to be fed all year. Replacing the bull with a cow that provides a calf may offset the expense of AI, as well as provide an opportunity to breed your cows to genetically superior stock. If you don't like the inconvenience of AI or you don't have safe handling facilities, you might also borrow or lease a bull from a farmer friend. Just ensure that the bull is healthy and his size is appropriate for your cows.
Cattle Handling Facilities
Some technicians won't agree to AI your cows unless you have a head-catch with a cattle chute. Honestly, I can't blame them. Would you want to have your arm stuck up to your shoulder in cow's behind while she was unrestrained? However, cattle handling equipment is not cheap, and it may not make sense for the farmer with just a couple cows to spend too much on handling equipment.
Depending upon the heat detection and synchronization protocol used, you may have to handle your cows several times for them to be bred. If the AI service doesn't result in a bred cow, you'll have to run them through the chute again or utilize a "cleanup" bull. It is not unusual for a farmer to try one or two rounds of AI, and then simply turn a bull in with the herd to ensure that all cows are bred. All this handling is time consuming, and it can also be a huge headache if you don't have a convenient way to handle your cows. However, the cows do eventually get the hang of going through the chute, and if you cull the difficult stock, it's not too bad.
One exception to the "you need to have good cattle handling equipment to AI" rule is the home dairy cow. Both of our dairy cows are perfectly content to be AI'd in the milking stanchion and are probably gentle enough to AI on a lead rope.
The Breed You Desire
To which breed do you want your cows to be bred? If there are no bulls in the neighborhood of the breed that you want, you will need to use AI. One reason that those who own dairy cows use AI is that many of the bulls of common dairy breeds are extremely aggressive. We've had Black Angus bulls on the farm in years past, and we currently keep a young Angus bull now for clean up after AI. I feed and move our bull without any fear for my safety, but for those who want to use a dairy breed, keeping a bull may not be the safest option.
Buying a good bull is not inexpensive. To minimize potential calving difficulties you will want a bull that has proven himself or has an established bloodline of low birth weights. If you just go down to the auction barn and buy the first bull that looks promising, you could set yourself up for calving problems. The bull could sire very large calves, which could lead to birthing issues in smaller-framed cows. The bull could be sterile or have a venereal disease. At the auction barn, there's just no way of knowing what you are getting, so it is worth the money to buy a sound bull from someone you can trust.
Buying a registered bull does not guarantee performance, but it does provide a chance to evaluate his ancestry and see if he is the best fit for your cows. Registered stock generally have performance data (EPDs) that provide some idea of the bull's genetic potential for birth weight, calving ease, growth characteristics, and carcass traits.
Your bull is responsible for half of your herd's genetics, so buy the very best that you can afford.
You will also need good fences to keep your bull confined. If you plan on raising replacement heifers, you will need a plan to keep him separated from the young cows, so he won't breed them too young.
For the small herd of five or so cows, AI is a less costly alternative to keeping a bull. Depending on the sire you choose, you can save quite a bit of money by breeding your cows artificially, especially if your cows breed the first time. However AI is only successful 50-70% of the time, so you'll probably have to breed at least some of your cows a second time.
For convenience, nothing beats using a bull for breeding. You simply park him out there with the cows at the appropriate time and let nature take its course. After several weeks, you can move him to another field with perhaps a steer for company, or you can leave him in with the herd if you don't have any young heifers. If your bull is a fairly well-mannered bull, keeping him will be little trouble. Additionally, if he's in good shape, you will probably be able to sell him after you've had him a few years.
Whether to go with AI or breeding with a bull is a decision that each farmer must make for himself. Carefully weigh the pros and cons to decide which choice is right for your farm.