Happy December folks, and welcome to the first instalment of Blogmas 2021! Yes, it may not have been my best idea in the world to commit to this after being a pretty rubbish blogger this year, but hey, we’ll give it a go.
I’ve set myself a bit of a challenge this year to try get some confidence back with writing and blogging after an unplanned break. I’m going to be picking a term from my Farm Dictionary each day, following the alphabet, and attempt to write something about it for you. I find it really hard to tell people about the dictionary because it feels wrong to talk about something I’ve produced, which is probably a bit silly since I made it to help others (and myself) decode farming, so how can it be of any help if people don’t know about it… So, I thought this might be the perfect way to blow the cobwebs off it and actually put it to use!
Anyway, enough rambling, let’s get on with day 1.
A is for A.I.
You can use Artificial Insemination in lots of different animals. It’s very commonly used in pigs and cattle, but also horses and sometimes sheep. With sheep, A.I. is usually done laparoscopically, where the semen is injected directly into each uterine horn because conception rates are better that way.
This year, we had a bit of an intro to the world of cattle A.I…
Our breeding season started off with a bit of unplanned drama. A day or so before he was meant to be going in with the cows, our bull decided to scramble over a 5-foot gate into a pen of heifers, dislocating his fetlock in the process, and putting himself on strict bed rest for the foreseeable. As you can imagine, the air here was very blue!
Luckily though, we’d already been having a dabble with A.I. that Spring.
We’d picked out two cows, Gertrude, who had sadly aborted her twins that December but had been fully cleared by the vet as it being ‘one of those things’, and Eeyore, who had greeted us with her calf a month early, just to keep us on our toes, as trials for trying to breed our own purebred replacement females.
We’d opened an account with one of the A.I. companies who sell the semen, bought some straws of semen from a pure Lincoln Red bull, and had one of their trained technicians come out to us on the days that each of them was ‘bulling’ (in heat). It’d been a learning curve, spotting when each was bulling by looking for them standing for other cows to mount them. Gertrude was easy, but Eeyore was harder to get right, meaning we’d used 2 straws on her already and were quite looking forward to just letting Basil do the job!
But that wasn’t to be, at least not for another few weeks. So, we quickly phoned the technician and asked them to add some more straws to our order, bought some paint for the cows’ tail heads, with the hope that when each cow was in what’s called ‘standing heat’, the other cows mounting her would rub the paint off, so we’d know who was bulling, and began watching everything like a hawk.
Never have we scrutinised the cows so much. And never have we seen so little indication of who’s bulling- we quickly had a newfound respect for Basil the bull!
I’m not going to say it was a roaring success, but I think for our first time, we did ok… hopefully, anyway! Trying to get them served at the optimum time was difficult- there’s quite a delay between them first showing signs of heat and actually ovulating, so if you get them AI’ed too early, you risk the semen dying before the egg is released.
We quickly ran into a problem with the tail paint. Our cows, especially the Lincoln Reds, are extremely hairy, and the paint just matted onto their hair, making it impossible to remove. Then, you had the ones who found a place to itch on and itched it all off…
We didn’t tend to see anyone showing much signs of bulling through the daytime, so each morning, my dad would sit in front of the cowshed cameras at 6am and fast-forward through the night before, looking for any activity and trying to pinpoint which cow needed serving. It was a long 3 weeks!
A.I. gets quite a bad reputation sometimes by people who don’t know much about it, but after seeing it up close, we can categorically say it doesn’t hurt or distress the cows at all. When they’re in bulling, some of them actually stand and back into you when you lay a hand on their back, as my dad found on his morning rounds! They’re happy to stand and be served in the cattle crush, and their cervix is open and easy for the A.I. gun (a very thin, long tube) to enter if they are in that one-day(ish) window to be served in their 21-day cycle (on average).
We’ve had cows injured when they’ve been mounted by a tonne of bull before, so I’d actually go as far to say that using A.I. was less stressful on their bodies (but much more stressful on ours!).
After 3 weeks of picking cows out, we were very relieved to find Basil the bull completely sound and ready to go do his job! Watching them over the following 3 weeks, when the ones we served should have been back in bulling if they didn’t hold, we saw a few return and be served by him. But hopefully, we managed to catch a few and will be having some Lincoln Red or British Blue calves (the breeds we picked straws of semen from) joining us in February.
One A.I. success story was Gertrude, who held to the first service back in March and is carrying purebred Lincoln Red twins (yes, twins again!), which are due on Christmas Day! Fingers crossed her calving goes smoothly- we’re hoping for 2 heifer calves who can then join the breeding herd in the future!
We definitely won’t be rushing to have a rerun of this year’s breeding season, but we are going to carry on having a few cows AI’ed each year to continue breeding replacement cows- unless at scanning time we find we didn’t manage to get any in-calf, in which case, we might just leave the bull to it!