When it comes to raising animals there are a few essentials. If you want calves, you are going to need a bull, well or at least his genetic material!
As of today, we have five low line Angus cows/heifers, and a milk cow. We intend to calve beginning mid-February and through mid-April. Since we only have six ladies I was really hesitant to buy a bull. We don’t really have the set up for keeping separate pens of animals long term. Most of our fences need to be rebuilt. Six cows really aren’t enough to keep a bull busy and out of trouble. On top of that, a bull is a serious financial investment.
Artificial Insemination (AI)
Artificial Insemination allows you to breed cattle for specific genetic traits without actually keeping a bull on site. I am not very familiar with the process, but I did a little research when considering the best option for us. If you are looking for more detailed information about the process take a look here. I will just be describing the basics of the process as they relate to our decision making process. The major advantages of AI include not locating, purchasing, transporting and maintaining a bull. AI also allows you to improve your herd with superior genetics or specific traits. The disadvantages are the costs, the skill necessary to achieve high success rates, and in my area a lack of resources to obtain the semen and or perform the insemination. In order for fertilization to occur, the cow must be in estrus, or in heat. A mature cow is fertile for only about 10 to 14 hours after she is receptive to mounting, or ‘standing heat.’ She will release an egg every 18 to 24 days. The cow must be inseminated approximately 12 to 18 hours after standing heat. (Source.)
So what does all this mean? It means the timing of insemination is crucial and difficult for someone without a lot of experience to detect. A failure in timing will result in cattle who are not bred. After investing the expense of the semen and the time to inseminate them, open cows are not the desired outcome. The heat detection process is complicated because each female in the herd will come into heat at a different time. One option to increase detection rates, and reduce labor, is to attempt to synchronize the herd using synthetic hormone injections to manipulate the cycle and hopefully improve outcomes.
In talking with our neighbors we found a wide range of opinions and experiences. With such a small herd, a lower success rate becomes a much larger deal. Only having six breeding age cattle, we really need the highest success rate possible.
Purchasing a Bull
We purchased our place two years ago. Not much had been in terms of maintenance in a long time. While we are working away at it, we are fighting an uphill battle in terms of infrastructure. At this point in time, we have a complete absence of cross fencing and questionable perimeter fences at best. We have made a lot of progress and will continue to do so. However, we always seem to be balancing where we are right now with where we want to be in the future. While we have the ability to keep a bull in with our cows and once they are bred, we do not have a great place to winter a bull during calving season and while our cows are raising calves. That said, we found the biggest challenge to be locating a bull that meets the needs of the specific program we are attempting. We plan to focus our breeding program on moderator sized American Aberdeen (or lowline) Red Angus. American Aberdeen bulls are not common in our area and we were looking at traveling a great distance to get just the guy we were looking for. We were able to locate a few eligible bachelors that fit our standards, but ultimately we secured a better solution for this year.
For us, the best solution ended up being sharing a bull. As we talked with other producers in our area a friend had a bull they would not be using this year anyway. He mentioned the advantages to their operation of having him off-site (and out of trouble!) since he was off rotation this year anyway. They had already planned to rent him out just down the road from us later in the season, so it made perfect sense for us to rent and pasture him for three months. This particular bull is what is known as a ‘heifer bull’ in that his offspring have historically been smaller, making for easier first-time calvers. As only two of our cows have had previous calves, this was an advantage for us.
Financially this was a great option. We were able to breed our cows without the huge financial investment in an animal at this early stage in our program. He is red, as are three of our five ladies. The red coloring in Angus cattle is a recessive trait, so our red cows will have red calves, and our black cows, being out of a red bull themselves, have a 50-50 chance of having red calves.
The largest disadvantage is this handsome fellow is large! He is a full-size red Angus bull. Our calves this year will be 3/4 sized rather than the 1/2 size we are ultimately shooting for. In order to maintain the moderator size, we will have to alternate between larger and smaller bulls throughout the years. As it is, this relatively low-cost solution allowed us to easily expose our cattle to a bull and will hopefully result in some good looking calves in the spring.
The bottom line: It pays to get familiar with the other folks in your area doing similar things. There are many examples of when neighbors can partner up and develop win-win situations for all. Ultimately, this solution ended up working out for us, and two other programs in our area.
So, How did it Go?
Well, we will find out in mid to late February! Cattle have a gestational period of 283 days, with American Aberdeen cattle tending to be about 10 days shorter than average. For the most part, it went fairly well. Our girls were very happy to have Moto Moto (as our kids called him) around. Around the end of his stay with us, we did have a little trouble keeping the bull in. He went for a brief adventure to the neighbor’s place. I am hoping that means he did what he came to do and was ready to move on! We shall see!