A few weeks ago, I started a series featuring biotechnology tools used in cattle herds across the country. David and Jennifer Heim are friends of mine and own a dairy farm in northeast Kansas. The Heims milk 85-100 Holstein cows and raise their heifer calves as replacements. They also raise corn, soybeans, hay, and other forages, mostly for feed. Jennifer greatly enjoys spending time with her breeding and genetics program and does an awesome job blogging about the events and decisions made on the farm. When she wrote this blog post describing their use of Artificial Insemination in the herd, I was pretty excited that she is allowing me to share it with you.

Holstein Dairy Calf Hutch Artificial Insemination
This little gal (who is not this little any more) is from one of the cows I personally bred, which is a very cool feeling. She’s out of the bull Boliver, who happens to be one of the few proven bulls we were using last year.

Breeding is important, but it really doesn’t matter what you breed a cow to if she doesn’t get pregnant. Last spring, we started using blood tests to confirm pregnancies. Since then we’ve tweaked our protocol to best suit our herd’s needs. Our milk hauler picks up our blood samples, and I am usually home on Sundays to draw blood, so every other Sunday, when our milk will be picked up on a Monday morning, I take blood samples from cows and heifers that were bred between 8 and 10 weeks prior who have not shown a heat since. The test can indicate pregnancy at 28 days, but we were observing a lot of heats just shortly after testing, and about a month after testing, when we were testing earlier. We’ve been on the every-other week at 8 weeks bred schedule for 3 or 4 months now, and have had very few come back in heat after being confirmed pregnant.

Several weeks ago we wrapped up pregnancy confirmations on all our cows and heifers that were bred in 2012. We tallied everything up, and here’s what we learned:

What are your conception rates with artificial insemination?

We started out the year with great conception – about 60%. Then we had two unexplained terrible months in March and April. Summer brought normal lulls due to heat, but was still better than March or April. After the heat subsided and the herd adjusted, we finished the year with solid conception and a lot of pregnancies, including several cows who were on their final attempts. Next fall may be busier than this one was.

How do you select sires with artificial insemination?

We used a lot of bulls – 34 total. Of many of these, we only used one or two straws as we were finishing a cane (the typical semen storage vessel, each holding 10 straws) as the year started or starting one as it ended. But, we were also only purchasing 10 units of most bulls. This wasn’t exactly unintentional. We were using mostly genomic bulls (the numbers come from DNA testing rather than daughter-proven performance), and since the technology is new, we like to balance our risk by using a variety. However, on paper, it was a little shocking,. We also hadn’t realized how few daughter-proven bulls we included in the mix.

What lessons have you learned with AI on the farm?

The excitement of genomics apparently went to our heads. We used 10 units of a sire named G W Atwood who has the show-rings buzzing with his fancy daughters, but in hindsight, that’s one of the worst investments we made. Don’t get me wrong, Atwood daughters are beautiful cows, but many are too tall for our stalls and less efficient from a feed intake vs milk production standpoint than daughters of other available bulls. That’s not what we’re looking for. Thankfully (I guess?), from the 10 units we only have two pregnancies, and they’re both short stocky old cows that should be complemented by Atwood’s dairy type, and their smaller stature will hopefully influence the stature of their potential daughters.

We also learned that conception is important. We knew this, but after the terrible time we had last spring, it really has started to hit home. One of my favorite bulls we used last year isn’t very fancy. His production isn’t off the charts. He’s just a decent bull, but he does his job – he gets cows bred. We purchased Shyster for two primary reasons – 1) his pedigree is a out-cross on almost everything we have (he’s not a cousin or brother to many of our cows) and 2) he was listed as a high conception bull. I’m not sure what his overall conception rate is in our herd now, but I know he was 3 for 3 on his first three breedings including a cow and a heifer who we had already given more chances to get pregnant than most farms would. Shyster gets cows bred, and that’s what breeding is really all about!

What plans does your farm have moving forward with AI breeding?

Our biggest take-away from all the data was the need to focus on our specific goals moving forward. Our plan for 2013 is to use more units of a few carefully selected proven bulls while still mixing in a variety of genomic bulls who best fit our goals, based on both numbers and pedigree. These steps will hopefully help us achieve the focus we feel we are lacking.

What traits are you looking for in dairy cows?

Holstein Dairy Calf Hutch Artificial Insemination
This calf is over a year old now, and we confirmed her bred today. She’s out of the bull Planet, who is still near the top of the proven lists, and is bred to sexed Grafeeti. We are milking two Planet cows currently, and we really like them.

Our ideal cows are moderate in size, convert feed efficiently into milk, and are durable and healthy to hopefully stick around for the long haul. In addition, we have started looking more closely at components (fat and protein), which are the portion of the milk we are actually paid for. Thankfully, components also happen to be very “heritable”, meaning that in just a few generations, they can be greatly improved. And if the cows look gorgeous while producing gobs of milk, that’s great, too.

And I’ll say it again, conception matters. The best bull in the world does us no good if we don’t get cows bred. Conception is affected by a lot of things – the cow’s feed and environment play a role along with our breeding techniques, but the semen plays a role, too. For most bulls there is conception data of some sort available, and we intend to take advantage of it. Semen that doesn’t get cows bred is money down the drain.

Every bull doesn’t have to meet all of these criteria; we look at more than numbers. And we do carefully mate, so we know the cow’s strengths play a role, too. That being said, I am very picky when I select bulls. I think I should be. These are our girls, and we have to do what’s best for them and their future daughters. Anything less would be selling our herd, our milk check, and ourselves short.

Follow Jennifer’s story and learn more about decisions made on her dairy farm through her blog, on Twitter (@jmheim33), and on Facebook.

What do you want to Ask a Farmer about Artificial Insemination or Biotechnology in Cattle?