Increasing genetic gain in a suckler herd with the use of sorted semen
May 6, 2021
With the breeding season just around the corner suckler farmers will be starting to consider breeding protocols on the farm. For suckler farmers using artificial insemination (AI) it is time to look at sire selection for the upcoming breeding season. Benefits of using AI on suckler farms include being able to select high genetic merit sires improving genetic gain, being able to select specific sires for individual cows allowing balancing of traits such as maternal and temperament, and maximising hybrid vigour by using a range of breeds to complement the cows on the farm.
Sexed semen or sorted semen as it is quite often referred to can have numerous benefits for suckler farmers, CAFRE Beef & Sheep adviser Noel McNeill explains, “The ability to control the gender of the calves being produced on a farm is a management aid for producing a product the market demands. The dairy industry has embraced the use of sorted semen and are achieving significant progress. One of the main drivers for this in the dairy herd is the fact the male dairy calves were seen as a by-product, and increased demand for this semen has improved the gender accuracy by up to 95% which was seen by a trial conducted by AFBI. Another positive impact of the use of sorted semen is the increasing speed of genetic progress within a herd, especially when used on maiden heifers, by reducing the generation interval”.
Noel continues, “One of the main reasons people will use sorted semen is to produce a female replacement from high genetic merit maternal bulls mated with the best maternal cows in the herd. This can be a great way of producing replacements for a closed herd or for selling as breeding stock. Male sexed semen is also available and this would be less well known in the industry. This could have major benefits for a farmer producing bulls or steers for the weanling sales or someone who is operating a suckler to bull beef system. The ability to produce bulls from a high genetic merit terminal sire can be exploited to increase the value of male progeny for the beef supply chain”.
Noel added, “AFBI have completed trials with sexed semen with positive results. They have observed the best success with sexed semen on natural heat observation and insemination compared to synchronisation programmes. AFBI have trialed the use of female sexed semen on maiden heifers with measurable success, as female calves have smaller birthweights and are easier to calf. Also, because they are heifers producing heifers, it is increasing the speed of genetic improvement within the herd. AFBI trials have also shown positive results from use of male sorted semen within the herd”.
If AI has not been used on the farm before it may be advisable to use conventional semen first to see what conception rates can be achieved. If a herd is not seeing a conception rate of 60% or better, then a few technical areas should be looked at before using sorted semen. Breeding animals should be up to date on all planned health treatments and vaccinations, such as Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) and Leptospirosis, well in advance of the breeding season. Pre breeding scanning will allow you to pick up on problem cows before the breeding season starts. Cows should be on a rising plain of nutrition after calving with a target body condition score of 3 at time of breeding. No major changes in diet should happen in the month before breeding. A herd trace element profile can be done using blood tests to make sure there are no issues, or to inform the decision to supplement as needed. Stress should be kept to a minimum when handling animals for insemination as this can have an effect on the conception rate.
Sorted semen has a slightly lower conception rate to that of conventional semen, about 90% of the herd normal conception rate local AI companies are quoting. Thus, if conception rate to conventional semen is 80%, conception rate to sorted semen would be 72%. As there is no facilities currently in Northern Ireland for sorting semen it is important to get it ordered early ( 1 or 2 months in advance), as this will allow time for it to be exported. Sorted semen is more expensive than conventional semen , but this extra cost can be offset by the fact that a maternal bred bull calf is worth less than a terminal bull calf so reducing the amount of these will improve profits.
Noel concludes by saying, “Sorted semen allows for more precision in the breeding of a suckler herd and it provides farmers with two avenues to focus breeding on, either to produce better terminal animals for the beef supply chain or to produce breeding females for retaining or selling in breeding sales. Farmers should take time to look at a bulls Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) before selection and pick the most suitable bulls for the females in their herd. Some of the higher demand bulls may not be available as it takes 3 times as much semen to produce one straw of sorted semen compared to that of conventional, this however may not be the case in the years to come as breeding companies are starting to move more in this direction. Improving genetics will improve profit in a suckler herd and sorted semen is another tool a farmer has to address this. If a farm is seeing good success in using conventional AI there is no reason why they shouldn’t try sorted semen and see the advantages it can deliver within their herd”.