It always sneaks up on me…
Breeding season, that is.
Compared to all the big ranches around us who have hundreds of cows to breed each year, I feel like pretty small potatoes with our two measly mama cows.
But still, if our cows don’t get bred, then we don’t have milk. Or meat. So yeah, it’s an important deal.
I know I’ll get this question, so I’ll answer it right off the bat: Yes, if you want the best quantity of milk and a new calf to sell (or eat) each year, you’ll want to plan on breeding your milk cow every year.
Once a milk cow (or goat or whatever) has a baby, they can continue on with their lactation cycle for years if they are continually milked (think supply & demand), but most folks prefer to breed each year, as it is generally the most economical way to manage a home dairy animal.
Although a cow can come into heat (aka start ovulating) very soon after calving, we prefer to wait at least 60 days (usually even a bit longer) before we breed her again, just to give her body a bit more time to rest and recover.
Oakley had her calves mid-May this year, and we just bred her last week, so that was about a three-month wait period.
We used artificial insemination (AI) to breed Oakley and our beef cow this year. I’ve received a number of questions about this, so I decided to dive in with a little more detail and pictures.
What is Artificial Insemination?
Artificial insemination is a very common practice in the agriculture world. It involves using collected semen to breed an animal, versus using a live bull (or stallion or buck or ram or whatever) to provide the breeding services. The semen is kept frozen in “straws” and then a vet or AI tech deposits it in the animal at the proper time, depending on their heat (ovulation) cycle.
Why We Used Artificial Insemination This Year
We’ve used bulls in the past and they are definitely a very viable option for homesteaders looking to breed their family milk cows each year. However, here are the main reasons we personally opted for AI this year:
- There are no local Brown Swiss bulls in our area. In the past, we’ve borrowed whatever bull we could find. Although this can work, we have decided if we are going to breed our animals, we want to produce the best stock possible. This means we are opting for a proven Brown Swiss bull to get high-quality Brown Swiss calves, rather ending up with a bunch of calves that are half Brown Swiss/half Angus/half Hereford, or whatever. Mixed-breed animals are fine for eating, but we’d like to have some nice heifers to sell to other families as quality family cows in the future.
- We don’t have the room or facilities to own our own bull right now, and that’d be kinda silly anyway, considering we don’t have a huge herd. We only have 67 acres with minimal cross-fencing, so trying to keep a big (sometimes aggressive) bull separate from the herd during certain times of the year could be interesting.
- Artificial insemination allows us to keep our bloodlines fresh. For example, Oakley had two heifers (girls) this year, and we will breed them next year. Even if we did find or buy a local Brown Swiss bull, we wouldn’t want to breed him to his daughters, so we’d be stuck in the same boat again next year.
- Artificial insemination is cost-effective and we have a number of very qualified AI technicians as neighbors. Someday I’ll learn how to do our own AIing, but for the time being, it’s pretty darn awesome to have such handy neighbors.
How to Detect Heat in Your Cow
The first step in the artificial insemination process is to determine when your cow(s) are in heat. Obviously, if you’re using a bull for breeding, he takes care of the detection. But since AIing removes him from the picture, figuring out when your cow is in heat is all on you. Timing is crucial, and if you miss this short window of time, you’re outta luck. Detecting heat can be super easy, or super hard, depending on your cow…
Cows come into heat on a roughly 21-day cycle, and can show some (or none!) of the following signs:
- Restlessness, agitation, or out-of-character behavior
- Calling (mooing) to other cows more than usual
- Clear mucous or discharge from her back end (if you see blood-tinged discharge, it probably means you’re too late and have missed the window)
- Swollen vulva
- Decrease in milk production (not always, but sometimes)
- Trying to mount other cows, and/or allowing other cows to mount her.
If you catch your cow standing still and allowing other cows (whether they be male or female) to mount or “ride” her, that’s usually the best indication. This is called “standing heat” and can be one of the most reliable signs your cow is in proper heat and ready for AI.
Ovulation usually happens towards the end of standing heat (approximately 12 hours). So, if we see a cow in standing heat in the morning, we usually won’t AI until later than afternoon or evening, and vice versa.
The tricky part? Some cows exhibit standing heat readily, while others do not… Also, if you only have one cow, it won’t work to watch for standing heat, since there will be no other animals to be interested in her. If that’s the case, you’ll want to watch closely for the other signs. Our steers (castrated male calves) work wonderfully for detecting standing heat. Obviously they cannot breed the cow, but have enough hormones to still be interested.
My secret weapon in detecting heat in our cows are these cool little patches. They stick onto your cows back and work the same way as a scratch-off lottery ticket. If another animal rides the cow, the silver part rubs off exposing the color underneath. This prevents me from having to sit out in the corral all day watching for standing heat. Although, I do still end up spending quite a bit of time out there checking patches anyway…
The AI Process
Once we detect the cow as being in heat, the clock starts ticking and it’s time to roll.
Our neighbor arrives with all his gear and the semen tank containing the straws we ordered ahead of time. Liquid nitrogen keeps it nice and cold.
He gets to work thawing the semen and preparing his equipment while we load the cows into our small log alley.
This is “Red Cow”. She doesn’t have a name because she isn’t super nice and I only like naming animals who are polite. See her shooting me death glares? She’s up first.
Up the alley she goes, and we secure her head into the head catch. It doesn’t hurt her in the slightest, but makes sure everyone (including her) stays safe during the super-short procedure.
You can see from the hot pink patch she was definitely in standing heat earlier. All the silver part has been rubbed off by the steers who were mounting her.
The semen is ready. Our neighbor puts one sleeved arm into the rectum. This will help him manipulate the cervix and guide the rod in.
He wipes off the vulva to keep things clean, then carefully inserts the insemination rod (containing the semen straw) and guides it through the vagina into the cervix where the semen is finally deposited.
The cow doesn’t mind the procedure in the slightest. And it’s over so quickly, they usually hardly even wiggle.
And that’s it. Kinda anti-climatic, huh? Now the waiting game starts again.
I’ve marked my calendars to start watching for heat again in another 21-ish days. I’ll put another patch on her when the time comes. If she comes back into heat, it means the AI didn’t take, and we’ll have to try again.
If I *don’t* see any signs of heat (fingers crossed), I’ll draw some blood around the 28-day mark and send it into the lab to see if she is indeed pregnant. We also often use our local vet to manually check for pregnancy, but I’m opting for the blood test this year so I can get the results a bit faster and adjust my plans as needed. (You have to wait a little longer before a pregnancy can be manually detected.)
And of course, I’ll keep y’all posted as the breeding excitement continues…