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Seeing the value in breeding technologies

Laura Handke for Progressive Cattleman Published on 24 October 2019
Cattle getting water

Technology in agriculture is not a new concept, and the efficiencies and the advancements those technologies have provided producers has revolutionized the industry.

But technology is not just apps and data; technology can be found in the new best practices and simple-to-use-innovations being adopted throughout the cattle industry, and in the added pounds of beef those technologies are producing.

For the second generation of Redding, California’s Elwood Ranch, implementing a culture of intensive breeding management has opened the operation to new marketing opportunities with commercial cow-calf customers.

Will Harrison, manager of Elwood Ranch, shares that the benefits of breeding technologies aren’t just seen in the herd, but in an operation’s reputation, as well.

“It took us from having what we considered to be a good reputation to a place of having an exceptional reputation. The same ranch has purchased our replacement heifers for the past three years,” he says.

The commercial cow-calf operation that Harrison and his dad, Jim, manage and operate produces black-baldy cattle, using both artificially inseminated (A.I.) and natural service bull genetics from the Hoffman Ranch of Thedford, Nebraska.

“We started a timed-A.I. program six years ago for the reproduction efficiency of it: to shorten up the calving window and keep uniformity in our calves,” says Harrison. “It let us use bulls [semen] that wouldn’t have been economically feasible [if the ranch had to purchase the bull].”

A.I., by itself, isn’t a new practice. However, the protocols and refinements seasoned producers and technicians have developed, coupled with industry innovations, are game-changers in moving herds forward in genetic advancement and maximizing breeding success.

Using the tools you have available

Texas A&M’s assistant professor of beef cattle production, Dr. Ky Pohler, and his team are working to identify and isolate those reproductive mechanisms that lead to embryonic and fetal mortality in cattle.

“Reproductive efficiency doesn’t lie to us,” says Pohler. “It is a good measuring stick of where our overall management is. If you look at what causes poor reproductive efficiency, it is mainly around embryonic mortality and pregnancy loss. So a lot of the time, when fertilization occurs, we get an initial embryo but have embryonic mortality or pregnancy loss along the way. What we are doing in the lab is looking at strategies and mechanisms to determine what that loss is and then developing strategies to overcome or decrease that loss.”

Pohler shares that there are technologies available today that help to increase reproductive efficiency and that producers are forfeiting some of their herd’s genetic potential and gain by not utilizing the tools available to them.

“I like to ask producers at the beginning of a talk, ‘How many people preg check their cows?’ You usually get a pretty good show of hands,” Pohler says. “Then I show the USDA numbers that say only somewhere between 20 and 30 percent of beef operations use pregnancy diagnosis.”

That is a very simple technology and is the backbone for reproductive efficiency. If we don’t know if our animals are pregnant, how can we measure true reproductive efficiency?

Pohler says technology adoption is viewed by producers as something that is very challenging, but also shares that if increases in the genetic merit of their beef operation is to be made, reproductive management and efficiency is the only way to make that happen.

All West Select Sires’ Clint Sexson agrees.

Today, Sexson manages the breeding of between 5,000 and 6,000 cows. From the days of using glass ampules to three summers of detecting estrus in cows from horseback, Sexson has seen the benefits A.I. can afford producers if they are willing to stick with the program.

“I’m not just a huge proponent of A.I. because that is where my paycheck is cut from. I have always been around A.I. and have seen the gains that it adds,” says Sexson. “But it is like retained ownership; you can’t just dabble in it to see results. Those long-term customers that started with us a decade ago, they are seeing the genetic value increasing in their herd.”

Technology as a management tool

“Two things that we use constantly is a gun warmer to keep guns and sheaths warm – to control semen quality – and Estrotect breeding indicators.

“I have used paint, chalk and tail paint. Today, I wouldn’t breed a cow without a patch. I could never have a customer send me a picture of one of those first three types and tell if the cow was in heat. With the patch, if I get a picture, I can tell immediately. They don’t have to be fancy; I have tried the electronic ones, and the simple design of the scratch-off patches makes them the easiest I have used,” says Sexson.

For Pohler, however, the information conveyed through a breeding indication patch is far greater than an answer to the question of a cow’s standing heat.

“We know that if cows or recipients [embryo transfer] have increased estrous expression before embryo transfer or A.I., they will not only have increased initial fertility, but decreased pregnancy loss,” he says.

Multiple studies, conducted by Pohler and other researchers, have observed thousands of cows, finding that when more than 50% of the Estrotect breeding indication patch was rubbed off, cows had increased fertility and decreased pregnancy loss, with the final pregnancy check resulting in a live calf on the ground.

Pohler says that when a producer isn’t seeing a high number of activated patches, they should be looking to see what went wrong in their protocol and using the technology to make management decisions.

“If I go out the day that I am supposed to breed 200 cows and only one of them has an activated patch, something, somewhere is going on,” says Pohler. “The other things I have been explaining to producers is if you have a cow with an unactivated or barely rubbed patch, and you have the choice of using a 10-dollar straw of semen or a 75-dollar straw of semen – I’m using the 10-dollar straw and waiting on a fully activated patch to put that 75-dollar straw in.”

Making your investment pay

Technology has to economically make sense, and that is one of the areas Pohler believes producers struggle with the most on the reproductive side of things.

“As an industry, we have to figure out how to get more cows bred earlier in the breeding season, get more live calves on the ground and then get those cows bred back again. When I ask producers what is the reason for not using A.I. in your production, I hear a lot about labor, cost and value,” says Pohler. “We have to do a better job of helping producers see the captured value of A.I., fixed-time A.I. and embryo transfer.”

Data and price, Pohler says, are also indicators of the rate and acceptance of adoption. He shares that the data behind estrous detection patches, coupled with multiple academic research studies, help producers see the value they are getting in relation to the expenditure they are making.

“At the end of the day,” Pohler says, “a bull is an expensive, biological creature that is carrying genetics and likes to destroy things. It’s all about genetics, and increasing genetic merit and reproductive efficiency is how that will happen.”  end mark

PHOTO: Breeding indication patches determine standing heat as well as help producers make management decisions. Photo courtesy of Estrotect.

Laura Handke is a freelance writer based in Kansas.

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