When we started Sedgewood Plantation's Registered Angus herd in 1994 our goal was to develop the best genetics we could in as short a time as practical. Of course, this meant we needed to have a 100% A.I. breeding program without using any cleanup bulls.
Our initial stab at AI was not very satisfactory. We had several good neighbors that would come A.I. the cows. Sometimes no one would be available when needed. Sometimes a technician wasn’t up to snuff. One guy AI’d 21 cows, got only one pregnant, and that calf died at birth!! Trying to do heat detection in addition to working full time and taking care of 200 cows almost killed us.
The next year, we knew we had to do something different. My wife Nancy and I had Mark Smith of Triple S Genetics come and spend 2 days “home schooling” us on the fine art of AI. We borrowed a load of cull cows from an order buyer friend to practice on and both learned AI.
Next, we dealt with the important issue of heat detection by going to the Heatwatch product. Heat detection is typically a time-consuming, frustrating headache with a great deal of uncertainty. Heatwatch makes it almost foolproof. Heatwatch monitors your cattle 24 hours a day. It not only tells you when a cow is in heat, it tells you exactly when she came into heat so you can breed her at the optimum time 12 to 16 hours later.
The system includes the radio transmitter, which is placed in a cloth patch that is glued to the cow’s tailhead at the start of breeding season. Each transmitter has a unique number, which is entered in the computer along with the ID# of the cow it is placed on. When the cow is mounted, the transmitter sends a radio signal to the radio receiver and the information is stored in the buffer until you turn on your computer and retrieve the data.
The Windows Heatwatch program is a lot more than simple heat detection. It is literally my command post for breeding management during the breeding season. Not only does it tell you when a cow is in heat, it keeps up with which cow was bred to which bull by which tech on which date. It also tracks: (1) the elapsed time between the onset of heat and time of breeding, (2) how many days since the last heat, (3) how many days since they calved, and much more. Plus you can create multiple reports to sort and display data you are interested in. Those reports can be viewed on screen or printed out for a hard copy.
What you are all probably wondering is “How much does it cost?” Heatwatch has a significantly greater start up cost than the other options. For us, there were no good second choices. I am not home enough to do good visual heat detection. I could not do a 100% AI breeding program without it. The amount of gray hair, sleep deprivation, and frustration that Heatwatch saved me the first year was worth the cost.
The Windows program with receiver and buffer costs about $3500. Each transmitter costs about $50. So, if you bought a Windows system and 40 transmitters it would set you back around $5500. This doesn’t include the patches, glue, and other consumable materials. This is a lot of money, but let’s put things in perspective. For $5500 you can only buy 2 or 3 good registered Angus cows. You would make much faster genetic improvement getting 40 cows bred AI than buying 2 or 3 cows. Plus you make the initial investment only once and use it year after year. At $50 each you don’t want to lose any transmitters. We have 150 transmitters and only lose about one per year. If you don’t do things right, you could lose many. Your breeding pasture should not have low lying tree limbs or other things that would snag the patches. The terrain can’t be so hilly that the hills block the radio signal. The receiver for the system must be within ¼ mile of the transmitter. Further reach could be achieved by adding a radio repeater at a cost of about $900.
How Does Our Program Work? We try to limit our breeding season to 2 1/2 months and calve in October, November, and two weeks into December. At the first of January we get all the cows up and apply their transmitters. We then check heats twice a day. First thing each morning we check the computer to see who came in heat the night before. We then breed them 12 to16 hours after the onset of heat. In the afternoon we check again and get up those that came in during the day. They are put in the barn to be bred that night using the same criteria.
For optimal heat detection you need one or more good teaser bulls to activate the transmitters. They are much more dependable than a cow to mount the cows in heat. We have several Jersey bulls that have had vasectomies and their penises surgically relocated to the side. Our cows are gentle and we handle them quietly. No electric cattle prods are used. Our place is cross-fenced with lanes leading to the barn where we have lights, inside working pens, and a squeeze chute.
When a cow comes in heat, we get her group up next to the lane with a bucket of feed, cut the ones we need into the lane and go right on to barn. The experts don't recommend breeding your cows in the same squeeze chute where you work them because it raises their anxiety and lowers conception. I have fixed this problem by placing an elevated plastic tub in front of the squeeze chute. While the cows are in the chute getting vaccinations, preg checks or AI, they have a tub full of feed in front of them. This gives them positive reinforcement for going into the chute and keeps their mind off what is going on at the other end.
We get about 70% conception per insemination. I attribute this to properly timed AI, quiet handling of calm cows and proper semen handling. We only thaw one straw at a time and leave it in the thawer only 1-2 minutes before putting it in the cow. We also keep the syringe, thawer, & A.I. kit very clean and use sheath protectors on every AI service.
If anyone has any questions about the HeatWatch system or my AI philosophy please feel free to contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Heat Detection and AI Management
By Wm. P. Howard, M.D.
Cattle Business Magazine