Tag Archives: artificial insemination

Artificial Insemination and Planning Ahead

Do you have a cow?  If you have a cow, and you want her to produce milk, she’ll have to have a calf.  She makes the milk, after all, for the benefit of her baby.  And if you want her to keep producing milk for many years, she’ll need to have a new calf about once a year.  That means you’ll need either a bull or someone who knows how to artificially inseminate your cow for you.

We use our local vet, but not all veterinarians are comfortable with AI, so your mileage may vary.  You might be able to find someone to do it for you through your local extension office.  The extension agents know everybody.  And, worst case scenario, you might learn how to do it yourself!  I’ve been assured that it isn’t overly difficult, but there is a knack to knowing how everything feels and when it’s all right.  The vet or the AI specialist gets a lot of practice that you probably aren’t going to get on just your own cow or two.

As I said, we use our local veterinarian.  He’s really good and he makes farm calls, so we don’t have to load the animal to get the deed done!  Our problem is in scheduling.  Sometimes, there are two vets working out of the office, and then it’s not so bad, but when there is only one, like now, I need to know when my cow is going to be in heat so I can schedule him to arrive on time!

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Signs Your Cow Is In Heat

If you have more than one cow, the most obvious sign of imminent ovulation is mounting behavior.  In the beginning, the cow in question will attempt to mount other cows in the herd (or even you, if you aren’t careful!) but she’ll move off if the other cows try to mount her.  Later, within a few hours, she’ll stand while they mount her, maybe turning her head to admire her derriere.  In fact, even without other cows present, she’ll seem overly interested in her rear end.

You can use other signs to determine when she’s fertile, too, even if she’s your only cow.  She will very likely be unusually restless and perhaps moo-ey.  If she’s milking, she may not let down so well for you that day.  You might notice her vulva being a little softer and maybe a long string of mucus.  She may not eat as much as you’d expect, being rather intent on accomplishing a certain other activity.

Pay attention.  You’ll be able to tell!

Planning Ahead

Once you’re noticing what she looks and acts like when she’s in heat, it’s helpful to know how long her cycles are.  The average bovine has a 21 day cycle, but I’ve noticed mine are more like 22.  Each cow is different.  If you are in a hurry to have her bred, you can go with the 21 day average, but if you can pinpoint your particular cow’s cycle length, I think you’ll have better results.

Now you can call your AI guy and schedule him to come to your cow.  I plan, against my vet’s advice, to have him there a little bit before I expect my cow to show heat signs.  His understanding is that the semen, once thawed, have only a 10-12 hour lifespan.  I’m pretty sure we have more like 24 hours, or perhaps better.  Anyway, I’d rather have him there a bit early than miscalculate and have him show up as scheduled, but too late.  Too early, you still have a chance, but too late is just too late.

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The Basis for My Timing Decisions

Allow me to explain my thought process here?

Up until this past fall, I just watched and waited and called my vet as soon as I saw any indication that my cow was in heat.  Alas, a country vet who makes farm calls is in high demand and my small, last minute need often went unfulfilled.  That has a negative effect on my herd family planning and the management of my milk production.

Then, one day late last summer, my husband’s Army friend was visiting.  He grew up on a dairy farm, spent all his leave for twenty years going back to work on the farm, and just retired from the Army and bought the farm.  Which is all to say that he really loves his dairy farm, and he has never gotten out of the business, in spite of twenty years of military service, frequently overseas.  🙂  So this one day last summer, he was talking about how the dairy guys in his neck of the woods were breeding at 19 days and trying for 18.  It was kind of an “aha” moment for me.  I mean, of course!

I know enough about human fertility to know that sperm live for several days in situ, and I don’t see how it would be any different for cattle, who also happen to be mammals.  We do admittedly lose a lot of the little guys by freezing, and then thawing, them, but the ones that do survive the process should have a lifespan of at least 24 hours.

I’ve scheduled all three of my cows to be artificially inseminated approximately 12 hours before they actually went into heat.  Sunshine and Maybelle conceived on the first try.  Annabelle was bred in early May by a different vet and didn’t take, but we tried again this week.  He came in the morning and she was in standing heat by the evening milking eight hours later.  Hopefully, this one takes!  I’ll let you know in three weeks.

Artificial Insemination: Two Down, Two to Go

“Good morning, ladies!” I called out cheerfully.  I flipped on the barn lights.  Sleepy cows rose and stretched and looked at me curiously.  Except one: she thrust her head over the stall door and mooed.

Here’s a little known fact for you: Cows only moo when they are in need of something.

So I looked at her sharply.  “What’s wrong, Maybelle?  You can’t be hungry.”  She focused intently on Annabelle, who was performing her morning toilet.  “Ah, you’re in heat!”

In order to minimize the chaos a cow in heat causes, we kept her isolated and milked her last.  At the last minute, I decided to leave her in the barn until I could call the vet to see if could come AI her.

AI stands for artificial insemination.  While it’s maybe not the best thing for people, it sure does save a lot of trouble for cows!  Our vet keeps the semen straws in a very cold tank at his office, and when we need one, he warms it, comes out to the farm, and impregnates the cow.  It saves us having to keep a bull, and having to find a new bull every two years when his daughters are ready for breeding.  It also gives us access to better quality sires than we’re likely to be able acquire as a live animals.

Alas, the vet is not always available on short notice, and I didn’t really expect him to make it over.  Then again, it was a rather cold and windy day.  Maybe most of his other farm work had been cancelled due to weather.  I waited impatiently for the office to open at eight, while Maybelle paced and mooed in the confines of the barn.

I dialed at 8:03. (They never answer exactly at eight.)  “Hello, would one of the good happen to be available to come AI a cow this morning?” I asked.

“Actually, yes!” the receptionist replied, much to my surprise.  “Would ten o’clock be okay?”

“Perfect!” I exclaimed.

So Maybelle is bred!  Hopefully.  We’ll watch her carefully for signs of heat in about three weeks, to make sure the AI took.  It usually does, so I’m not worried, but I need to make sure.  And if it did take, that means that two of our four cows are bred for late fall calving this year.  The other two will wait till May for Spring 2016 calving, unless I can catch Annabelle in the next few days.  I’m finding fall calves to be all around better than spring, but I don’t want to deal with it too far into the winter!

The Heart of the Hay: It's the best part, you know! We're storing the hay in the heifer calves' field, and they do a good job of eating out the middles.

The Heart of the Hay: It’s the best part, you know! We’re storing the hay in the heifer calves’ field, and they do a good job of eating out the middles.

How To Breed For Heifers

Did I say tomorrow?  I meant the day after tomorrow.  🙂

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Since I rely on my vet to inseminate my cows, and since my vet isn’t always available when I want him, I’ve always been a little panicky about calling him as soon as my cows show signs of being in heat.  The first time he came out, he stuck his long, gloved arm in there, and said, “She’s only just coming into heat.  That’s great.  And breeding her now will increase your odds of getting a heifer.”

So I learned how to tell when my cow was in heat (yeah!) and I inadvertently learned how to get heifers.  I don’t always want heifers, but I get ’em anyway, because I’m panicky about calling the vet as soon as my girls show signs of being in heat.

This stuff here has to do with human fertility.  The female releases an egg at ovulation, and the egg always carries an x chromosome.  The male’s sperm can have either an x or a y chromosome, and that is what determines the gender of the baby; two x chromosomes is a girl, an x and a y is a boy.  Now the sperm are longer lived than the egg, so the egg can be fertilized by sperm donated at least a couple of days in advance.  (Chickens are good for as long as three weeks!)  Male “y” sperm are lighter and faster, but they die more quickly.  Female “x” sperm are bigger and slower, but they live longer.  If the sperm are introduced when the egg is ready, those male sperm have an advantage over the females, but if the sperm are applied before the egg is released, it is more likely that the males will die before they can achieve fertilization, giving the females a wide-open shot.

I figure cows are mammals, too, and even though their cycle is shorter, and their fertile period is much shorter, it works basically the same.  Susanna got it right when she said, “NFP for cows!”

When a cow first shows signs of heat, she is moo-ey, restless and less interested in grazing.  She will mount the other cows (or you!) and the other cows will try to mount her, but she will move out of the way.  You may also notice a soft vulva and perhaps some mucus.  I usually notice this behavior first thing in the morning, but my vet won’t answer the phone until eight.  Very tense for me.  And he always asks if the cow in question is in standing heat. Standing heat is when the cow will allow the other cows to mount her.  She will stand for it, perhaps looking over her shoulder to watch, but make no effort to get out of the way.   I always say “yes”, even though the answer is really no.  He’ll only come if I say yes, and by breeding at the first signs of oncoming heat, we are favoring the female sperm, who are more likely to still be alive when the cow’s egg is released later in the day.

We’ve had six calves born on our farm, and all but one have been heifers.  The one bull was born to a half-Brown Swiss cow who never showed any obvious heat signs.  I could only tell she was in heat when she was in standing heat, and I was not surprised to see her bull-calf earlier this month.  That cow is going into the freezer next month because she’s all around harder to breed and her gestation lasted three weeks longer than for my full-blooded Jerseys.  And she’s huge and slightly stubborn, which scares my backup milkers.

Now most experienced farmer-types laugh at me when I tell them this stuff.  They tend to be men, though; perhaps they just don’t have the appropriate appreciation for female fertility cycles.  And most of them won’t breed till standing heat because they want to make sure the pregnancy “sticks” the first time, but the only cow we’ve had to breed twice is that Brown Swiss.  If you wait till she stands, you’ve waited too long.  🙂

So there you have it.  Bottom line: Call your AI tech or vet as soon as you suspect your cow is going into heat, and dramatically increase your odds of having girls.