March 17, 2013

Improving beef with better bulls

Peter Hagar, Cornell Cooperative Extension Educator

---- — This past week, I hosted a meeting of beef producers to talk about selecting a bull to improve meat quality. Dr. Mike Baker, Cornell University Beef Cattle Extension Specialist, talked about the criteria for selecting the proper bull. Since most beef farmers in our area are relatively small, finding a bull with good genetics, a record of good health and performance along with proven ability to transfer good traits to his sons and daughters is often too expensive. 

All too often, a small beef farm will settle for a local bull with very little proven ability. One solution to this would be the use of artificial insemination (AI).

While the majority of dairy cows are bred artificially, beef cattle pose some special problems that keep many producers from giving it a try. I too was guilty of taking the easy way out and using a bull, probably costing me more in the long term. Using a bull, even out of a good herd, is still a gamble. Not just from a genetic standpoint, but safety as well.

In my small herd of beef cows, I have a mix of several breeds. With no way easy to separate them, a single herd bull would breed them all, thus putting all my eggs in one basket, so to speak. While there is nothing wrong with a little crossbreeding, in one or two years time, all the breeding stock will be daughters and the bull will have to be replaced. The advantage of artificial breeding is that you are able to select from a list of bulls each with distinct and proven characteristics.

The first challenge of breeding beef cattle with AI is that they are usually roaming freely in large pastures, often out of sight and far from any barns. The first step is to build or modify existing facilities to round up and securely catch the cattle. Since beef cattle are seldom handled, these facilities need to be extra sturdy.

Beef cattle have very strong flight reflexes and under stress will try to barrel through gates and fences that normally keep them in just fine. Corrals and head gates need to be designed with human safety in mind as well since artificial breeders appreciate working in a safe environment. I built my corral in a centrally located area of the farm which allows easy access and easy routing of the cattle to be bred. Using plans available from Cooperative Extension, a corral and chute can be built at a reasonable cost in a few days.

The second challenge is actually catching your beef cows in estrus. Unlike dairy cows which are usually kept in barns and being milked twice a day, beef cattle are out on pasture being nursed by their calves. Unless they are being fed on a regular basis, observing them for estrus does take additional time and patience.

Starting about three to four weeks after calving, cows will begin a regular three-week estrus cycle. Using a chart available from your local AI representative, start noting and marking down each time you see a cow in estrus. This is made much easier by good identification tags.

When the breeding season begins, I spend about a half hour each morning and evening walking among the cows and observing for signs of estrus. Having noticed previous estrus periods makes it much easier to spot them on the expected day. Regular and patient observation is necessary.

Once you have observed the cow in standing heat and have secured her in your barn or corral, who is going to breed her? Part of planning to breed your cows artificially would be to contact your local AI representative and talk with them about your plans. If you are in an area without regular AI breeding services, you can equip yourself, go to a training course and learn to breed cows yourself. Since I was formerly an AI technician, I bought a liquid nitrogen tank, selected and purchased semen from a variety of top rated bulls and started breeding my herd several years ago.

While making the switch to artificial breeding in beef cattle is not easy, it can be done and will pay off in the long run. The resulting offspring will have improved genetics, the potential for higher growth rates and higher quality beef for your customer’s next cookout. For more information about handling facilities, switching to artificial insemination or sire selection, contact me at 561-7450 or email

Peter Hagar, agriculture program educator, Cornell Cooperative Extension Clinton County, 6064 Rt 22, Plattsburgh, 12901. Phone 561-7450.