The weather has finally changed during the last few weeks and the rain has come. Unfortunately it is way too late for any fall pasture. Surprisingly the cows have maintained themselves extremely well on stubble, grass hay, and a little alfalfa. All the calves have been weaned and the cows are on “vacation” until February when calving ensues. I have been traveling a lot the last few weeks, between scientific meetings and Shorthorn deliveries, and time has flown by without accomplishing everything I had hoped to get done this summer. Perhaps the old adage, “there is always next year”, applies given my long list of tasks.
Look for a major announcement in the next Shorthorn Bulletin (January 1, 2018) regarding information, promotion, and preservation of Heritage Shorthorns.
Bi-Monthly Topic: The Future of Bulls
Having recently attended both the “Applied Reproduction Strategies in Beef Cattle” and the “American Association of Bovine Practitioners” meetings I was surprised by the obvious shift in attitude toward the use of artificial insemination (AI) in beef cattle. Certainly AI has been used in beef cattle since the 50’s. What struck me was that many presentations at the meetings emphasized the economics of AI versus buying bulls while pushing utilization of AI via the major AI studs. The implications for future bull production and sales will be enormous.
The following questions need to be addressed. First: Why is beef AI suddenly the focus of the large AI studs? Second: Can it be done on an economical basis for all sizes and types of beef operations? Third: How will it affect seedstock producers and bull numbers?
First: Major AI studs look at AI in beef cattle as a growth industry.
While most dairy cows are AI ed (75-80% range) the number of beef cows AI ed is less than 10%. Therefore growth in semen sales in the future will come mostly from beef cattle. With the advent of timed AI (TAI) several major AI companies have jumped at the chance to provide a “total service” (TSrv) for the beef producer. They will help you select the bull, synchronize your cows, and then breed them for a flat fee based on numbers. Cross breed enhanced genomic EPDs are all the rage so naturally the AI studs are using that as a selling point for both semen and AI services. There is no question TAI methodology is improving so pregnancy rates are also on the upswing. The ability of corporate AI studs to bring in a well trained AI crew to mass inseminate cows on a large scale facilitates the opportunity to be successful in employing their TSrv approach .
Second: Type, size, and location of individual beef operations will play a major role in whether AI “total service” (TSrv) is a workable solution and an economic winner.
By using numbers of cows I will arbitrarily breakdown cattle operation size by small (25 or less cows), medium (100 or less cows), or large (100 plus). Commercial beef operations may benefit if their goal is uniformity under the guise of improved production efficiency. Whether a producer is cow-calf or takes them to finish the uniformity aspect may be a prime selling point. Shorter calving intervals, calves with similar genetic makeup (all cows bred to one bull), and the reduction in needed bulls for breeding can definitely increase efficiency and make economic sense. For beef cattle producers who fit in between these two categories (combination producers) the implementation of any TSrv program may come down to the size and goals of that producer.
Size of a cattle operation may be the most important aspect as to whether TSrv makes any sense economically. Very small operations may use AI to breed their cows. Small to medium size cattle producers probably will not realize a large enough economic benefit to utilize the TSrv programs offered by the major AI studs. They may buy a few quality bulls every 2-3 years which will probably produce more positive economic results. Some may actually use AI on a limited basis in conjunction with buying a bull(s). The scope of large cattle operations make them prime candidates to utilize TSrv. No question they have a major expense in buying bulls let alone in handling, feeding and managing those bulls. Top bulls in today’s marketplace cost a substantial amount of money and bring along a considerable risk such as sudden infertility, lack of libido, and injury. AI eliminates those factors and allows for the utilization of top bull semen without the risks.
Third: Purebred seedstock operations will face a shrinking market due to the utilization of TSrv.
Inevitably TSrv will change both the production and sale of beef bulls more than any other previous development in the beef cattle business. With all the options available to cattle producers to get their cows bred today what are the consequences for bulls and seedstock producers? Fewer jobs and fewer sales. The days of many seedstock producers having huge sales where several hundred bulls are sold will slowly disappear. They won’t be needed. There are many factors that influence the number of cows/bull. As an example, the age of the bull and range acres/cow will have a major influence. I will use a reasonable intermediate number of 25 cows/bull to typify a common breeding situation. For a commercial operator with a 1000 cows with a bull for every 25 cows, that’s 40 bulls. Now if this producer utilizes TSrv and gets a 60% conception rate (a very realistic number with modern TAI) then 600 cows are bred before they even see a bull. I might point out that some operations are utilizing a second AI on the 400 cows not bred but most are moving to clean-up bulls. So this cattle operation only needs 16 bulls to get the rest of the cows bred. Considerable savings result from employing TSrv and the reduced cost of bull ownership. Consequently 24 bulls were never needed and never sold by a seedstock producer. By my math that is a 60% reduction in bull sales with a major economic impact on seedstock producers, breed associations, sale managers, and advertisers etc.
Who comes out ahead? Major beef AI studs and perhaps commercial cattle producers. Yearly market conditions will dictate whether TSrv is profitable but once the transition is made it is highly unlikely that the beef cattle business will ever return to the rip roaring days of major bulls sales. (I could carry this a step further and discuss how ownership of specific genes will further limit future bull sales but I partially covered that aspect in a previous Shorthorn Bulletin about gene editing.)
The predicament all seedstock producers will be in is how to respond to the loss of bull sales. I doubt that anything can be done since the change away from live bulls to AI is actually foreordained by the desire for the “best genetics” at the lowest cost. Even if the percentage of beef cows AI ed only goes to 35-40% the economic impact for seedstock producers will be far reaching and permanent.
Not to be too dispiriting I still believe there will be a need for clean-up bulls and niche bulls that fill specific genetic needs. Heritage Shorthorn bulls are one example of a niche bull that will find a market. The days of high dollar Angus sale bull sales dominating the bull marketplace will be moderated because of the employment of TSrv by more and more beef cattle operations.
The applicability of this issue for international Shorthorn Bulletin subscribers may initially be limited; however, given current trends, it is only a matter of time before the AI phenomenon overtakes traditional breeding methods on a worldwide basis with all the same overtones. It is already happening in Brazil on a large scale.
The evolution of the cattle industry will continue but ultimately it may take away the basic tenets of cattle production and put it in the hands of large corporations. Whether this is good or bad is for the individual reader to decide. Personally I enjoy the intellectual challenge and reward of producing quality Shorthorns that can function in varied cattle operations and that far outweighs any corporate entity telling me they will make better cattle and do it cheaper. In today’s world the constant drive toward uniformity in the production of everything, in the pursuit of profit, increases vulnerability to disaster. Cattle breeders may ultimately have to choose between producing uniform cattle to the specs of a corporation, as currently seen in chicken and swine production, or continue a more traditional breeding program which maintains wide genetic diversity within a herd be it purebred or composite. Diversity, as compared to corporate “cookie cutter cattle”, whether in Shorthorns or other types of cattle, makes a much sounder long-range foundation to work from, but that is a discussion for another Shorthorn Bulletin.
Joseph A. Schallberger, DVM, PhD
Whispering Hills Farm
Member Academy of Veterinary Consultants