Beefalo Central

The Bull vs. AI

By Beth Meyer
Copyright 2012

When raising cattle to sell as meat, it is always good to analyze your costs and determine the most cost efficient way of doing things. Your most valuable investment will be your cows and they will need to have calves in order to “pay” for themselves and their existence on your farm.   There are a few methods for getting your cows bred, each with its own cost, benefits and drawbacks.
If you are going to have calves, you need either a bull or semen from a bull. So how do you determine which method of breeding your cows will work best?   Here are a few things to consider when making that decision.

The Bull: 
​ You will need a place to keep your bull away from the cows until you are ready to breed them. In some northern climates, it’s not a good idea to have winter calves because the death rate is higher and they don’t do as well first starting out. If pasture raising your beefalo, timing calving season for when the spring pasture is growing best will help to get your calves off to a better start. You must also consider your cows when breeding. They are part of your investment and their purpose is to produce and raise calves. Why risk having and feeding a cow through 9 months of gestation only to loose the one product that she provides each year. So keeping the bull away from the cows until July or August may be necessary.
Once all the cows are bred, the bull can stay in the same pasture until calving time.A bull requires feed and minerals throughout the year. We keep our Beefalo out on pasture during the summer months and feed hay in the winter months. A mature bull can eat up to 5 large round bales of good quality hay during 5-6 months of winter.
One of the pluses of having a bull is that he does all the work of breeding the cows and you don’t have to keep watch as to when they are coming into heat.
A word of caution though, sometimes a bull that was once fertile can suddenly become sterile for no apparent reason so many producers will keep two bulls, thereby doubling the feed cost. Some producers would prefer to not have a bull on their property for safety reasons. Bulls should always be respected and handled carefully no matter how they were raised or how well you think you know them. They may occasionally become aggressive especially when they are tending their cows.  For this reason, some prefer not to take this chance.
Rather than owning a bull and keeping it year round, some producers have considered “renting” a bull that would be brought onto the farm at breeding time. Be sure you know exactly what conditions the bull is coming from. Animals coming from another farm or ranching operation to your place can carry diseases that your animals have never been exposed to before and this can have some serious negative consequences.  It might also be a good idea to have a written contract so that each party knows what their rights and responsibilities are. What happens if the bull is injured or dies while on your property? What happens if the bull isn’t able to settle your cows? What happens in the case of disease entering your herd?
If you only have a few cows, taking them to another ranch or farm for breeding to someone else’s bull can also have these same negative health consequences so should be considered carefully before entering into this type of arrangement.

Artificial Insemination (AI):
With this method, there is more work for you and your costs are put into semen, semen storage, AI servicing, and handling equipment costs. If you are letting nature take its course, your cows will come into heat at different times throughout the breeding season and that will require you to be watching them on a daily basis to monitor this activity. Each time a cow comes into heat, she will have to be caught in a squeeze chute or head gate and serviced either by yourself or by an AI technician.Your alternative would be to synchronize the heats of all of your cows by having a vet come out to give each of them an injection of a drug to bring them into heat (this means running each one through a chute/head gate to administer the shot). Then, in a few days, an AI technician would come out and perform AI on each cow, again having each one go into a squeeze chute or head gate.  If you have many cows, this can add up time-wise and money-wise in a hurry because not only are you paying for the service, you are also paying for the semen straws.In some areas, it is possible to take a course to learn how to perform AI yourself. A course can run a couple of hundred dollars but if you are going to be doing a large number of procedures, this might be a more economical solution to having someone else come to your farm to perform these procedures.
The plus of AI is that you can get genetic diversity in your herd much easier by using semen from different bulls. AI servicing is not an exact science and there is always a percentage of cows that will not settle on the first service. So now you are faced with watching again another 3 weeks after the first service to see which cows are coming into heat again, and having them serviced a second time.There is also one other possible cost for AI. Since many AI service companies don’t carry Beefalo semen, you may have to invest in a liquid nitrogen tank for storing your semen. These tanks generally need refilling several times per year and the annual cost can be a couple of hundred dollars. 
Some producers do a combination of AI and bull.  They will do some AI for genetic diversity but will also have a bull or two on the property. This is done to eliminate the need for a second service.  AI would typically be used for the first round of breeding and then, any cows that don’t settle would be bred by the bull.  Depending on the size of your operation, bull only, AI only, or a combination of the two will ultimately be the method of reproduction used.  
​ Research into the costs and the amount of work involved in each method will provide you with the knowledge to make the right decision for your farm/ranch operation.