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Grow old, tired and rich with A.I.

After 15 years of crowding 600 cows through a chute, this Sandhills couple can tell you how.
By Nita Effertz
Reprinted from 1980 Farm Journal/Beef Extra

  Do cattlemen who use A.I. simply have a love affair with work or does the practice really pay? Well, there's now pat answer. What pencils out in one rancher's operation could be economic disaster in another's.

  Eldon and Kathy Starr wouldn't argue with that statement, neither would they try to convince you to try an A.I. program like theirs. But they wouldn't switch to natural service either.

  The Starrs own a 1,090-head commercial cowherd in McPherson County, Nebraska. Roughly 60% of those cows have been bred A.I. every year for the past 15. "If A.I. weren't economical for me, I doubt I'd be in business today," is Eldon's form reply.

  A piece of cake, it's not. "People talk about the feasibility of A.I. in term of their ranch being suited to the practice. I think the success of an A.I. program depends as much on the individual cattleman as on his operation." suggests Eldon. "For A.I. to work, you can't be content as an average producer. If you can't get a little excited about a new crop of heifers that are better than last year's, you're not going to expend the extra effort to produce them. Yes, I think you have to like the cow business to use A.I. But that doesn't mean you like it at the expense of a profit. An A.I. program will pay for the extra effort."

  Putting that philosophy on paper is another matter. But some rough figuring will show an extra $85 gross per cow per year due to the Starrs' A.I. program. "All things considered, it doesn't cost me more than $30 extra per cow to breed artificially." estimates Eldon. "I'd say it's a paying proposition on this place."

  The Starrs have both a spring and a fall calving herd. Angus, Gelbvieh and Simmental breeds are used in a three-way rotational cross on most of the cows. "We're upgrading a few Simmental and Gelbvieh cows to purebreds, but only to produce our own cleanup bulls," explains Eldon. "This is basically a commercial operation."

  The Sandhills outfit is different from most commercial operations, though. Over 30% of the Starrs' steer calves are sold at or before weaning as club calf prospects. "That's not unusual anymore in commercial herds that breed A.I.," argues Eldon. "It's a growing market and one that doesn't follow the normal calf-price cycle." The balance of the steers and a few heifers are sold as yearlings to feedlots in eastern Nebraska.

  Yearlings averaged 758 lb. off the ranch last year. Although they actually wean at six months, weights adjusted to 205 days hit 550 lb. Since beginning A.I. 15 years ago, the Starrs have seen 205-day weights climb 116 lb. and yearling weights increase 140 lb.

  The Starrs' club calves averaged $910 a head last year. That's about $400 more per calf that 550-lb. calves run through the ring at 90 a pound. "We sell about 160 head a year as club calves. It brings my overall calf prices up quite a bit," notes Eldon.

  Take away the club calf checks plus half the extra weight on the remaining steers and the Starrs would be getting about $85 less per cow without A.I.

  "There's no question that A.I. is more work - it requires more management time," agrees Eldon.

  A breeding season of 45 days in the fall calving herd and 60 days in the spring calving herd is followed religiously. About 150 head are bred A.I. in the fall for two heat cycles. No clean-up bulls are used and open cows and heifers are culled. About half of the 940-head spring herd are bred A.I. for one heat cycle with clean-up bulls used for the balance of the period.

  Conception rates reflect the intense management. Of cows exposed to a bull or an A.I. vial, 96.4% become pregnant - 90% of all cows wean a calf every year. Records are kept as if the cowherd were registered. To speed improvement, the Starrs replace roughly a third of their cows with heifers every year.

  Obviously, maternal performance is high on the Starrs' list of priorities. "We've been selecting A.I. sires in all three breeds that will produce good females as well as growth."

  Most cows weigh between 1,100 and 1,150 lb. "This is a cake and range operation, so I have to put a lid on mature weights," Eldon says.

  Feed requirements are higher with A.I. "I have to make sure my cows are in good shape for breeding. This means the right timing of extra feed as well as the right amount. I'd say it cost about $10 more per head to get top breeding results," he figures.

  Feed is used as a bait to make A.I. breeding easier. Cows graze at night during the breeding season. "They come into the corrals for grain in the morning. We shut the gate and check for heat. Those not kept to be bred that evening or the next morning are turned out again that night," says Eldon.

  Heifers also learn to come for feed before they are bred. Eldon designed a range cube dispenser, and mounted it on a pickup so he and Kathy can feed "on the go." "We put a siren in the pickup, and after the firs couple feedings, they come running out of the hills when they hear us coming." he notes.

  Good working facilities are a must in an A.I. program. "I think you can build good A.I. facilities for a herd of this size for about $3,000." Eldon figures. He built much of the equipment he uses to inseminate from scratch - including an enclosed circular breeding chute. "The important thing is that they be designed for easy flow of cattle," he adds. "Some of them go through six times a year for one thing or another - all see it at least for times yearly."

  Labor costs are definitely higher in an A.I. operation. "I need one extra man around during the breeding season - but I try to keep a hired man all year anyway," Eldon says. "Now that the drug is cleared, heat synchronization will cut our labor costs."

  He is a trained technician and does all the A.I. work. "I spend at least five hours a day with cows during the breeding season. While we don't have many calving problems, Kathy and I take turns checking heifers every two hours during calving." he admits.

  More work for more pay. The Starrs say that is how it should be. "You can't get something for nothing - the cow business is no exception," Eldon surmises.

210 Starr Drive - Stapleton, NE 69163
Phone: 1-800-535-6173 or 308-587-2348
FAX: 308-587-2248