After I fawned over the cute calves, and fell in love with that guy I married, the first real passion I found on our dairy farm was genetics. A decade later, that’s still my primary role. Breeding is the biggest part of “Genetics Management” on our farm, and it’s pretty critical on all dairy farms because cows have to have calves to give milk. We don’t keep any bulls on our farm, though; if we keep a male, he becomes a steer at a very young age and is raised for beef. Instead, we purchase and store semen to breed our cows using Artificial Insemination (AI).
I’ve written about AI several times in the past. Through the years, I’ve learned that everyone isn’t comfortable discussing all the details. It’s a really simple and safe process, but anatomical/biological terms like cervix and semen apparently aren’t dinner table appropriate conversation in every house. Regardless, it is another job we have to do, so why do we choose to breed using AI?
Dairy bulls have an honestly-earned reptutation for being mean. All bulls have a lot of testosterone, and dairy bulls are often raised with a lot of human interaction (just like our heifers), which leads to a complete lack of fear when being handled. In our heifers, that makes for calm, easily handled animals. However, when bulls lack fear, they’re comfortable, but they’re also not afraid to take their testosterone-fueled rage out on their handlers. When our farm relied on bulls for most of the breeding, they actually ran the bulls through the milking parlor with the cows. That meant milkers had twice a day close-contact with an animal that might prefer to kick them in the head on any given day. Our current system completely removes this risk.
Bulls don’t generally take their aggression out on cows, but they are naturally bigger animals. Natural cattle breeding involves the male mounting the female, putting much of his weight on her back legs. A Holstein bull can easily weight 2000 lbs, and when a cow is in heat, a good bull will often breed her several times. That’s a lot of extra stress, and that process has potential to injur the cow being bred. Going down due to a leg or hip injury can turn out very badly for a cow. In contrast, the AI process takes just a few minutes and involves no potentially harmful effects for the cow.
I’ll preface this with the caveat that there are farms who manage reproduction with bulls better than ours did, but that takes, in my opinion about as much effort as an AI program without the other benefits. On our farm, the bulls were with the milking herd all the time, so they were never totally sure when a cow was bred, or which bull she was bred to. We also couldn’t maintain a voluntary waiting period after a cow calves to rebreed her, or know exactly when to dry her up. Now we have exact breeding dates and select a sire specifically for each mating. Knowing when cows are going to calve helps us better manage their pregnancies and lactations.
By far the biggest reason we AI is genetic gain. There is very little argument that the breeds’ best bulls end up at genetics companies. Are there good bulls available for purchase? I’m sure there are, but there are better ones in AI in every case. Using AI allows us to use a wider variety of sires (to not put all of our eggs in one basket, so to speak), and to use bulls with top genetic potential even though we’re a relatively small farm. We select bulls based on a wide variety of traits predicting how the animals will look as well as how easily they will calve, how likely it is they will get sick, how much milk they may give, and what levels of fat and protein their milk will contain. We do this to breed and raise cattle that are well balanced and profitable, and we regularly review our progress and tweak our approach depending on the strengths and weaknesses of our ever-evolving herd.
Not every modern farm is 100% AI, but I believe the vast majority are using it in some capacity. For our farm, using 100% AI was an obvious choice, and I think we’ve seen continuous improvement since we went all-in.
Side Note: For some reason, this technology (which has been pretty common in the industry since the 1970s), has drawn the ire of activists who claim it abusive and like to use the term “rape rack”. I don’t want to dwell on this, but do want to mention it in case you’ve seen one of those vidoes. I’ve never heard that vulgar term outside of an activist video, and I truly believe AI improves the level of care we provide our cows. David and I do all of our own breeding. We use a headgate, which only restrains the cow or heifer around her neck. It’s not tight, and it doesn’t pinch, but it also doesn’t allow her to move backward or forward so that it’s safe for us to stand behind her. The vast majority of our girls are very calm and content during breeding.