Our practice began offering artificial insemination (AI) in the spring of 2008, after client surveys indicated an interest in reproductive services. That first year we artificially inseminated 269 head, but after deciding to develop a great AI service we purchased a breeding barn in 2009 and began a partnership with Genex CRI for semen sales.  Those two components, as well as offering to service the entire process, jump-started our involvement in AI, as we currently inseminate over 5,000 head including heifers and cows. 

With the success in the AI programs our customers began asking for embryo transfer (ET), and we started offering limited ET services in the spring of 2011. By 2014, we were transferring 800 embryos each spring.  The tremendous growth in AI and ET has allowed us to brand our therio services as Republican Valley Genetics to give a bit of distinction for reproductive services.

The growth of AI and ET also has allowed us to expand other services like pregnancy ultrasound, nutritional consultation, semen sales, production data collection and consultation.  In some instances, AI and genetics consultation have allowed us a seat at the management table in operations where we had not previously had that privilege.  We also offer clients a slightly discounted ultrasound price following AI or ET services and send them a reminder at 60 days post-service.  

Evaluating if AI services are right for your practice

Veterinary businesses have a great opportunity to offer AI services, as veterinarians have ready access to the six major components needed to be successful. 

1.       Skilled technicians including veterinarians, veterinary technicians and assistants

2.       Equipment such as portable alleys and breeding barns

3.       Synchronization drugs

4.       Genetics knowledge

5.       Basic nutritional knowledge

6.       Semen sales

Vet clinics have access to the clientele through existing relationships and can gain clients through meetings addressing AI programs.  Most veterinarians or veterinary technicians will readily learn the skills needed to pass an AI pipette test and properly deposit semen.  In our practice our technicians take great pride in their AI skills and have added valuable services as part of our team.

Synchronization programs with fixed-time AI

The success of timed AI programs is what allows the service to mesh well with bovine practice today.  Today’s synchronization programs allow you to set a schedule that will work for both you and the producer.  The staples of our program include the seven-day co-synch with CIDR for cows, and the 14-day CIDR, or MGA and prostaglandin program for heifers.  I believe it is important to keep your synch programs as simple as possible so you, your staff and the client all are on the same schedule.  We have also used combinations of heat detection and timed insemination that have yielded outstanding results for many producers.  A critical feature for an AI program is offering to service the entire process. 

We offer all services from putting the CIDRs in to pulling the CIDRs and administering prostaglandin injections. 

In our area the producers are busy with crop planting during much of the breeding season.  It is common for producers to have one employee from their operation present with a couple of our people to complete a project.  In all circumstances, we print a calendar for the producers showing the date and time for all procedures for the selected synchronization program.  The Iowa Beef Center offers free access to its synchronization planner at iowabeefcenter.org.  This program is customizable to your clinic and is a great tool for printing simple calendars and cost analysis for your producers.

Genetics knowledge

In addition to the technical skills, most veterinarians have had some exposure to genetics, EPDs and genetic defects, or have the scientific background to learn. The first four EPDs you need to understand are those for birthweight, calving ease direct, weaning weight and yearling weight. Most producers will start with these traits in mind when planning genetic improvements.  Many producers will begin AI programs in their replacement heifers, so guide them carefully and emphasize the importance of selecting high-accuracy proven bulls for calving ease.  Nothing will turn the producer off to an AI program faster than pulling calves.  A quick explanation of EPD accuracy and how it is calculated is important during these discussions.

Semen sales

As we envisioned a complete AI program, we quickly realized that we needed to have quality sires available and we explored the possibility of offering semen sales.  After comparing semen companies, we found the Genex CRI business model aligned with ours.  We also have many customers that will custom-collect a bull of higher genetic value, and that service can typically be done for $3 to $5 per straw.  Be sure the collection takes place at a reputable semen collection center.  In our experience semen collected with the standards offered by the major semen companies is generally high quality, but we have found poor-quality semen from some services.  It will be of value to you and the customer to review the post-thaw analysis offered by the semen collection company.  If that analysis is not offered you should conduct it yourself prior to using the semen. 

Offering semen sales will require you and your AI teams to learn about available genetics.  Early on, I suggest finding people from breed associations whom you trust to help select sires that meet your clients’ goals.  We hold a producer meeting in late winter or early spring to discuss new advancements in AI as well as new genetics becoming available.

Nutrition 

Nutrition training does not need to be elaborate, but we need a basic understanding of body condition and the relationships between nutrition and fertility.  We recommend clients feed replacement heifers to gain less than 1.25 pounds per day to reach 60 to 65 percent of mature bodyweight by breeding.  Heifers should not be overly fleshy at breeding, although we might recommend an energy flush at three weeks prior to breeding if the heifers are not over-conditioned.  Also, as producers begin to retain heifers of better genetic merit from their AI programs, it is important they realize nutrient requirements need to be adjusted to account for higher growth rates and improved efficiencies in nutrient utilization.

One of the major mistakes I see is heifers in a feeding situation that are receiving a nice, balanced ration, then we breed them and immediately send them to grass.  In our area, the grass is usually lush and green at turnout, meaning very high protein and not enough energy.  We see those heifers go backward for the next two to three weeks due to what I believe is a net negative energy balance.  We’ve likely had a good number of heifers conceive but experience early embryonic death because of the negative energy balance. If we can hold heifers in the yard for 30 to 45 days and slowly reduce the nutrition plane before going to grass, we see much better results every time.

In cows, pre- and post-calving body-condition scores (BCS) need to be evaluated and discussed with your client. If cows are not in a BCS of 5 at the time of breeding, results will fall below 50 percent first-service conception, and you likely are not going to be inseminating those cows the following year. You don’t have to be a nutritionist, but you do need to understand how nutrition and reproduction interact and communicate these interactions to your clients.

Synch drugs and equipment

Most clinics already inventory the needed synchronization products.  The drugs most commonly used include: 

·         Progestins: CIDR (progesterone), MGA (melengesterol acetate)

·         Prostaglandins:  Estrumate, Lutalyse,

·         GnRH:  Factrel, Fertagyl, OvaCyst, Cystorelin, In-Synch

Equipment includes AI guns, thawing units, straw cutters or scissors, AI sheaths, paper towels and lube to perform the actual services.  Be sure to have AI guns that will handle both ½-cc and ¼-cc straws, as most sexed semen is packaged in ¼-cc straws.  In addition, you will likely need at least two nitrogen tanks for semen storage or several tanks if you choose to offer semen sales.  Bulk liquid nitrogen is generally pretty cheap and can add another service if you have interest in filling nitrogen tanks as a service to your clients.  

The largest investment for complete AI services is a good double breeding barn.  I believe this is a necessary component for the program, as cattle handle much easier and faster through an AI barn than through a normal cattle chute.  An AI barn is a significant investment of around $12,000 to $14,000 but can quickly become a source of income as your program grows.  We have a per-head charge for the use of the AI barn if we are providing the arm service.  We also rent the barn to our producers by the day.  Once producers see how easily animals enter and leave the AI barns they will request their use every time.  We recently designed and built our own ET and AI barn that has a larger office space required for ET lab work.  The barn also incorporates a hydraulic squeeze arm or panel that moves the animal to the left side of the stall.  This was done to allow for better biomechanics during the AI or ET procedure for left-handed palpators.  We also use this barn for ultrasound 60 to 90 days following the insemination or transfer.  Our hope, with this type of barn, is to incorporate safe and calm handling with better biomechanics for the longevity of our veterinarians and technicians. 

Evaluating the economics for your practice comes down to a few fixed costs of sheaths, needles, syringes and doctor or tech time needed to perform the services.  In our practice, we will average about 50 to 80 head per hour through our double breeding barn and 30 to 50 head per hour if we are using a single chute.  We provide tiered pricing, ranging from $7 per head on large projects to $13 per head for small numbers of cattle.  Our prices are somewhat higher than our competition, but we feel we provide a complete service that is worth the additional investment.

Labor

The No. 1 reason for not utilizing an AI program is labor shortages.  We utilize a combination of full- and part-time employees to meet the clients’ needs, and offering a complete service is part of what moved us to over 5,200 inseminations in 2014. I have been fortunate to work with a progressive set of veterinarians and producers who are willing to embrace technology, as well as to have a great team of technicians to offer AI services. 

The complete service can be charged individually or come as a packaged deal.  Adding AI programs to your services will likely extend your busy season by a month or two, which can be a good thing going into the slower summer months.

AI versus the bull

Several studies have shown the advantage of AI, and few producers will argue the genetic potential is greater than natural-service programs.  Most studies show about a 100-pound advantage at weaning in AI-sired calves over bull-sired progeny as a result of both better genetics and age of the calf.  Many of our client discussions start with these studies, as it is easy for the clients to calculate what the additional weight will add to their bottom line.  Our own data from the herds we serve show a 96-pound average advantage for AI-sired calves over traditional bull programs.  In my family’s 2012 calves, we saw a 94-pound difference at weaning and a 125-pound difference at marketing between AI- and naturally sired calves. That yielded a difference of $173 per head.  These results are typical of what we have encountered in most herds. Additional value comes from increased uniformity in the calf crop and improved cow productivity through better replacements. 

While presenting an AI program to a producer, it is very useful to discuss what the bull actually cost per pregnancy or per live calf. We developed a cost calculator with our partners at Genex, which we use with producers to compare all the cost for both programs.  The calculator shows cost per pregnancy is virtually the same for AI versus natural service — about $71 per head using today’s prices.  Given the genetic and production advantages of AI, you can easily show your clients the economic benefits.

Final thoughts

Even after a severe drought, we still have close to 30 million beef cows in the United States, and only about 5 percent of producers use an AI program in their herds.  Accordingly, there are about 4.1 million replacement heifers in the United States, with around 15 percent bred utilizing AI.  The percentage of heifers bred though AI will continue to rise as we begin to rebuild the nation’s herd, meaning tremendous room for growth in AI services. 

And, while the price of bulls has increased exponentially over the past few years, prices for semen and synchronization drugs have increased by less than 5 percent.  It’s easier than ever to talk to producers about an AI program, and I believe the veterinarian is best suited to offer the most complete services.  From genetic consultation to synchronization programs to arm service to all the associated services, AI has the potential to be a profit driver for any bovine veterinary practice.

See the full article, and others on BVD, welfare and BQA assessments and salmonella in the December digital edition of Bovine Veterinarian.