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Artificial Insemination Vs Natural Bull Service – Where are the Economic Benefits?

Authors as Published

Matthew I. Miller , Extension Agent, Farm Business Management, Southwest District (

As the calendar turns to April, driving down country roads the cows are eating through the fences, the calves are beginning to show their genetic merit, and the bulls are watching anxiously from their isolation pens for the gate to open and the breeding to commence.

After the Southwest VA BCIA sale set a record sale average recently in Wytheville, it’s clear that bulls are a major investment in any cow calf operation and producers are recognizing the importance of genetic merit in their operation’s bottom-line.  Many of Virginia’s leading commercial herds have utilized artificial insemination (AI) for years as a tool to use elite genetics and improve herd reproductive performance and pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed.  Much has been written in the popular press about the benefits of AI and yet less than 15% of cow calf operations use AI.  Economic considerations illustrate the impact AI can have and perhaps in today’s marketing environment the argument for AI has grown stronger.

One major consideration is that to utilize AI effectively and reap some of the economic benefits it must be coupled with an effective Estrus Synchronization (ES) protocol.  Why?  Solely using AI doesn’t allow for greater return on investment.  If we assume that a producer will just utilize AI, it implies they will visually heat check over a period of days or weeks to achieve an acceptable level of pregnancy.  That does not create the same “package” of calves that AI coupled with Estrus Synchronization allows.  Estrus Synchronization is the manipulation of a group of cows so that their “heats” are tightly timed.  Some protocols group cows to a few days while others may group to a few hours.  Estrus Synchronization allows producers to concentrate labor resources and attention to a tighter breeding window and focus their efforts to achieve the highest percentage of cows in heat during any set period of time.  It is a misnomer to use AI as a justification for economic gains, a more accurate statement is the ES and AI coupled together allows for greater economic gains.

When costs per pregnancy are examined in both an ES/AI system and a natural-service scenario, many factors must be considered.  For example, conception percentage in the ES/AI system can vary greatly.  If ES/AI performance is poor or below average, the costs per pregnancy in the AI system will certainly increase.  Conversely, in the natural service scenario the purchase price and stocking rate fluctuates widely among operations and again will greatly impact the cost per pregnancy. 

Based on the assumptions listed in Table 1, the cost more per pregnancy using ES/AI will be greater for the typical Virginia commercial herd than if they use a bull ($16 more).  Question:  Are there additional returns from the calves produced via ES/AI?  The short answer is Yes!  But how much?


Table 1. Cost per Pregnancy Comparing ES/AI to Natural Service
Time / Personal Labor$7.00
Technician Charge per Cow$5.00
Total Cost$33.00
Conception % = 65%
Cost Per Pregnancy
Purchase Cost$2600/ bull
Salvage Value$1100/ bull
 $1500 / bull
Years of Service4 yrs = 375/yr
Cows exposed per season25/ yr
Bull Costs per Cow Exposed$15.00
Bull Cost (Feed, Vet, Yardage) etc.$400.00 /yr or $16.00/ hd
Total Bull Costs per hd / yr = $31.00
Conception % = 90%
Cost Per Pregnancy


Examining the added value of the calves produced through ES/AI, we first need to consider the increased age of the calf relative to a traditional natural service scenario.  Research conducted at the University of Kentucky is illustrated in Table 2 and by itself is evidence that commercial producers can find monetary gain from an ES/AI program implementation.  The added age and tighter grouping of birth dates for the calves produced in the ES/AI system resulted in 109 more pounds of calf weaned per cow exposed.  In today’s current market we could comfortably value that increased weight difference at approximately $135 per cow exposed.  Let’s recall that we were at an economic disadvantage of approximately $16 per head initially.


Table 2. University of Kentucky Data
Number of Cows251100––––––
Calving rate, %90819
% calving in first 30 days856223
Average Julian calving date, days748410
% calf crop weaned88799
Weaning age, date21020010
Weaning weight lb.57750572
Calf weight weaned per cow exposed508399109
Adapted from Anderson and Deaton (2003)


However, the value goes beyond the fact that these calves are heavier due to greater age at weaning.  Intangibles that are hard to quantify is that producers have a specified due date on ES/AI bred cows.  This is translated in a greater efficiency of labor for calving and increased calf survival from both the increased attention to cows during calving as well as selection pressure being placed on bulls for increased calving ease. 

Further gains could be expected if calves were either backgrounded or placed in a retained ownership program.  Selection for increased yearling growth as well as carcass quality and yield is best maximized in an ES/AI system.

Finally, the biggest gains may be in the value recognized in females produced and retained in the herd utilizing ES/AI protocols.  Assuming that selection pressure is placed on maternal traits and maternal performance, these females born early as a result of an ES/AI plan have proven that they excel in comparison to herds where females are a product of natural service sires.  These daughters of ES/AI plans have proven to wean heavier calves that also excel in their offspring’s ability to maximize profit in feedlot scenarios where selection pressure has been placed on carcass traits. 

One final thought about ES/AI.  These protocols are well researched to allow beef producers to utilize highly proven bulls in their commercial herds.  However, each producer is responsible for the entire management system.  ES/AI will not be profitable in herds under poor management situations or where producers place selection pressure on the wrong traits resulting in calves born via AI but lacking the genetic profile to maximize economically important traits.  There is no doubt that ES/AI is a time consuming practice that has real risks of failure if the protocols are not followed correctly and the cows are managed poorly.  ES/AI cannot feed cows, build cross fences, manage soil fertility, nor vaccinate the cow herd against reproductive failure.  ES/AI is the fine tuning that has allowed commercial operations to take their cow herds to the next level for genetic excellence and profit generated per cow.  The ability to not only select for elite genetics but market those genetics either as load lots of weaned calves or as finished feedlot cattle is proven to increase dollars returned to the cow compared to their contemporary cow-calf neighbor.  There is no question that ES/AI is a valid component of cow calf operations looking to maximize pounds weaned and dollars generated per cow exposed. 


Virginia Cooperative Extension materials are available for public use, re-print, or citation without further permission, provided the use includes credit to the author and to Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, and Virginia State University.


Issued in furtherance of Cooperative Extension work, Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, Virginia State University, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture cooperating. Alan L. Grant, Dean, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences; Edwin J. Jones, Director, Virginia Cooperative Extension, Virginia Tech, Blacksburg; Jewel E. Hairston, Administrator, 1890 Extension Program, Virginia State, Petersburg.


April 8, 2011