*As made obvious by the title, this post contains some details about cow reproduction, so if that grosses you out or something, maybe skip this one. Also, I’m not a veterinarian or an AI tech, so I’m just sharing our experience and what our vet recommended. Always do your own research and consult your vet/AI technician if breeding your own cows.
The vet came out to the homestead today to castrate our bull calf — goodbye, testosterone — and prepare our mini Jersey cow for artificial insemination. We are a bit behind schedule due to the health issues my mom faced this summer, so I am relieved to finally be getting this done! Elsie will be calving later in the year next year than I had planned, but it’s not the end of the world. I plan to give her a year off from calving after this next calf so that we can get her back on a better schedule. I’m hoping to be able to milk-through to the next fall if she will stay in milk, and breed our heifer Mille for a 2019 calf while Elsie is on vacay. I should note that some people intentionally breed cows to calve later in the year, but I’m not a fan of winter milking so I would rather avoid it. . . but I’ll survive. I’ll just need some good winter clothes.
I thought I’d go ahead and blog the process to share how it all works as well as why we’re using artificial insemination (AI) instead of a live bull covering, as I’m sure that will be a question some people have.
The main reason we’re going the AI route is pretty straight forward: We simply don’t have access to a bull.
As with anything, there are pros and cons to both AI and natural mating. I’ll run over a few of them for you:
Pros of AI
- greater access to genetic diversity and genetic improvement — access to any bull, anywhere — not just local
- timing can be exact to what you want
- no bull handling — safer for the humans
- no transporting your cow to another farm — less exposure to disease, less stress
Cons of AI
- higher rate of failure — more variables
- timing must be exact — you can’t miss your window of opportunity
- more labor intensive
- must involve veterinarians and/or AI techs for the medicines and processes — increased cost and increased potential scheduling conflicts
Pros of Natural Mating
- relatively easy — introduce bull to cow and let nature take its course
- more room for error — if the cow doesn’t take on first mating, leave bull in longer
- timing does not need to be exact — bull will know when cow is in heat
- less scheduling conflicts
- no need for medications
Cons of Natural Mating
- must handle a bull — increases risks for humans
- locating a bull can be a challenge, particularly for rare breeds
- limited options — must use what is available locally
- timing is up to nature — may not know exact due date
- risk of exposure to disease and parasites through mating
Frankly, the odds are fairly even in my opinion. There are valid arguments and reasons to choose either course of action. Personally, if I had ready access to a healthy, high quality bull I would choose the natural mating option. However, in our current circumstances, AI is a much better option and, really, our only feasible option.
Elsie is a mini-Jersey, which means she is a very small cow. That alone narrows down the bull prospects tremendously. It’s common for family milk cows to be bred to a neighbor’s beef bull for a half-n-half calf, but that can’t be done with a miniature cow. Because of her small size, Elsie must be bred to a miniature bull that’s a similar size to her. If we were to breed her to a standard size bull (dairy or beef), the calf could grow too large and cause her trouble calving. Not only do we not live in an area with many cattle herds at all, but all the cows here are full size cattle as well. Elsie came from North Carolina, and the closest herd I know of with the minis is over four hours away. It wouldn’t be feasible for us to purchase a bull right now, either, with only two cows and nowhere set up to safely contain one.
Even if we were able to find a miniature bull nearby, genetic quality is important to me. I’m hoping and praying for a heifer calf this go-round, and so I want a top quality bull to pass on good genetics to the offspring. While I love my Elsie girl and there are a million things I like about her, there are some areas where she can be improved. One example is her topline — rather than a smooth level topline, her’s arches in front of her hips. I’ve read that, unfortunately, hip and spine issues can be an issue in miniature Jerseys, so it was important to me to find a very reputable, high-quality bull to ensure that her calf has the best possible genetics from the sire. This is the beauty of AI: I am not limited to choosing whatever bull I happen to find nearby. I was able to seek out the appropriate sire for my cow and her specific needs and size. I decided to purchase semen from Mary Jane Butter’s bull, Samson. You can read about him and all the reasons I chose him here on her heritage Jersey chat forum.
Preparing for AI
There are a few steps you have to take in order to prepare for artificial insemination to ensure your best chance of a successful pregnancy. Some people will choose to wait until the cow is in heat naturally and inseminate at that time, but personally I believe that’s not usually a good idea. Timing is so important in AI. If the animal is not in a full standing heat, or the insemination is given at the wrong time, you’ve just wasted a lot of money. There’s also the risk of missing when the cow is in heat or getting the semen shipment too late, which is something that has happened to me with my pigs. A lot of homesteaders, like myself, don’t have expensive semen tanks to store straws in year round, so we rely on shipping semen and the timing needs to be perfect.
I understand the hesitation to use hormone therapies. I don’t like messing around with hormones, either, so I had some qualms about using the hormone injections needed to do AI. However, I learned that the hormones given are low level meant to replicate the similar level of hormones that a cow experiences during a natural heat cycle. These are not like synthetic growth hormones which are given to beef cattle to stimulate faster growth. These are simply used to replicate/stimulate a heat cycle and ovulation in a cow so that she can become pregnant.
The whole process of AI takes about 7-8 days, but the biggest aspect is the scheduling.
Step 1: Find and purchase semen to have on standby.
The first thing I did in this process was to purchase my semen straw and place it on hold. How exactly this works will depend on where its purchased from, but in my case I paid for the semen first and then had them hold it until I was ready to schedule shipment.
Step 2: Schedule the Vet.
The second step is to schedule the first vet visit. While your vet may have a slightly different process, I’ll tell you what steps my vet took. Keep in mind that I’m not a vet myself, but I will explain what each thing does to the best of my knowledge and ability. For more in depth explanations, ask your veterinarian.
On the first visit, he gave Elsie a GnRH (Gonadotropin Releasing Hormone) injection. This is a naturally occurring hormone that, to put it as simply as possible, stimulates the growth of the ovarian follicle (where a developing egg is kept). He also implanted an intravaginal device called a CIDR (Controlled Internal Drug Release — pronounced “seeder”). The CIDR releases the hormone progesterone and is used to synchronize the heat cycle and to increase the pregnancy rate as well. The CIDR leaves a “tail” outside of the cow which is used to remove it at the correct time. Our vet also recommended that we deworm her as well.
For the record, Elsie was pretty unphased by it all. She was much more concerned with the food bucket in front of her than anything else.
Step 3: Schedule, schedule, schedule.
Like I said, timing is everything in AI and it is exact down to the hour. After steps one and two, it’s time to get out your calendar and get everything scheduled. This includes planning the exact hour you will remove the CIDR, calling to schedule the actual shipment of the semen, and also scheduling either your vet or AI tech to come out at the exact right time and perform the insemination. Seven days after the implantation, we will remove the CIDR and give another hormone injection. Then exactly 58 hours after that the actual insemination will take place and a final hormone injection will be given. We now know exactly down to the day and hour when we will be doing these steps and the semen storage facility knows what day our shipment needs to arrive.
Because this post is getting long, and because I kind of have the whole thing separated into two main days/events in my mind, I am going to stop this post here and leave you with a cliff hanger! Be sure to check back for part two of this post, which will go into more detail about what we do seven days after with the final steps of AI and then, later, how we will pregnancy check her.