Is there a more heartwarming and majestic sight than gorgeous old-fashioned cows in a peaceful grassy meadow, calves scampering by their sides? Think that’s a sight you’d like to see from your own front porch? Awesome. But have you given much considered thought to exactly how those calves will come to be?
Accepting responsibility for the future of rare breed animals is an undertaking not unlike adopting children. While it is joyful and rewarding work, there are challenges and sacrifices as well. Those genes are precious and in need of committed stewardship which requires a measure of diligence and accountability you should be sure you’re prepared to give.
Your successful breeding program hinges on one key decision: keeping a bull and breeding naturally or implementing a plan for Artificial Insemination. And of course, to make your decision harder, there are both positives and negatives to each approach.
My own choice is to keep a bull and let the cows handle things in as natural a manner as I can provide. The benefits are that I remove human error. My bull knows the perfect time to breed each cow much better than I do. His application of semen is more accurate, the bull has no schedule conflict with the cow’s estrus cycle and the vitality is superior. My rate of conception has been 100% with all calves delivered within a short window. Of course it is inevitable due to age or health one day one of my cows will not conceive on time – it is a numbers game, and my numbers are small yet. Still, I will never match my bull’s success rate with artificial insemination.
But I’m not here to say that my decision is the right answer for everyone. The obvious disadvantage to natural service is the bull. Who wants an oafish, destructive, dangerous beast around? Are you worried you may not be up to the challenge? I surely was, still am and probably always will be. Wonder what it’s like to have a bull? Most of the time, it’s no big deal. But sometimes, those bulls become a very big deal - check out this tale of a recent bull-centric week on my farm.
AI allows you access to a wider variety of genetics from great distances – something admittedly difficult to achieve with natural service. Of course I speak for the humans involved, but spending time with the vet or technician is certainly more pleasant than accommodating a bull, and assuming your facilities are safely designed for handling your cattle, much less dangerous for everyone involved.
Since my primary motivation for raising cattle is improved animal welfare, the lives lived by some of the bulls kept for collection purposes and some of the methods of collection don’t exactly thrill me. There are technicians who travel to visit bulls at their home which is more natural life for the bull than that led by the professional dedicated string of bulls at the large genetics facilities. While I don’t cringe so much about the occasional collection from bulls living normal lives, the risk of error becomes a greater possibility when delicate semen is handled by amateur owners. It is possible to destroy the semen in the process of storage and transport, and errors take costly time to discover.
Widespread use of AI impacts the gene pool in another way that should be obvious to everyone, but somehow is not often mentioned. Unlike in nature where only the strongest DNA wins the race to fertilize the egg, our AI practices help the inferior sperm fertilize eggs too by removing nature’s safeguard - the competition. This affects the hardiness, diversity and adaptability of the resulting animals and leaves entire populations at risk from disease.
Most days, I’m completely satisfied with my decision, and my bulls have not been overly burdensome. But then I have a week like this one, and AI looks like a modern miracle.
Raising livestock is a long journey and I reserve the right to change my mind at any time. For my particular farm, on this particular day, the benefits of keeping the bull outweigh the risks. My reward? A healthy crop of vibrant, low-maintenance calves all born within a few short weeks. Just in time for the flush of spring grass. Since my beef sales are purely seasonal, that’s just the way I like it.
Jackie Cleary presented workshops at the Seven Springs, Pa. MOTHER EARTH NEWS FAIR.