Case Study: Katanka Farms "The value of Fixed Time AI in commercial heifer mating programs"

Updated: 4 days ago

Author: Dr Enoch Bergman, Swans Veterinary Services.

Katanka Farms is owned by South African farmer, Mr. Alfie Wagner. Alfie agreed to participate in the ASHEEP/Swans Veterinary Services, Meat and Livestock Australia (MLA) Producer Demonstration Site (PDS) focused on demonstrating the value of integrating FTAI into commercial heifer mating programs. The goal of the PDS was to demonstrate the ability of integrating FTAI in heifer mating programs to improve conception rates, reduce dystocia, reduce calf mortality, reduce heifer mortality, improve calf weaning weights and improve heifer rebreeding rates. The project was secondarily designed to emphasize the value of both ensuring adequate heifer premating weights and of condensing the calving pattern of first-time calving heifers.

Alfie’s Australian holdings were managed by Ryan Willing and his wife Elisha until December 2019. Ryan is a current board member of ASHEEP and a member of the cattle subcommittee involved in the project. Alfie farms 2100 hectares in the Condingup region, predominately running 700 breeders. Katanka participated in all three years of the trial. Ryan didn’t hesitate to participate in the PDS on Alfie’s behalf. “I was very excited to be involved with this PDS, I’ve long thought that artificially inseminating heifers was the next step forward in commercial beef cattle enterprises so this way a great opportunity to prove that.” Ryan said. “Heifers represent your farm’s best genetics so lets get the best calf out of them we can and set them up to improve their rebreeding rate.” He added.

The setup of the PDS was fairly simple. Ryan randomly hi-jacked approximately half of Alfie’s replacement heifers, synchronized them, and Dr. Enoch Bergman of Swans Veterinary Services inseminated them on the first day of their traditional mating season. The remaining half of the heifers were put straight out with appropriate bulls on the same date. The heifers which were enrolled in the AI program joined their naturally mated siblings ten days later for the remainder of the planned heifer mating period. The conception rate, calving success, rebreeding rates, and the weaning weights of calves from the two groups of heifers were measured in order to estimate the potential value of integrating FTAI into Alfie’s commercial heifer mating programs. Heifers from 10 other Esperance properties were involved in the trial. Some properties, like Alfie’s, participated for all three years.

Under Ryan’s management, Alfie’s FTAI integrated heifers had a lower conception rate than their naturally mated siblings in the first year of the program, but enjoyed a superior conception rate in the second and third years. One of the objectives of the PDS was to highlight the importance of achieving adequate premating weight and recognition of the need to ensure a positive plane of nutrition through the mating program. Ryan said. “To ensure the best return on investment when integrating FTAI in your heifer mating program, nutrition is essential. Having all heifers at 55- 60% of mature cow weight and on a rising plain is the best way to get a higher conception to AI in my experience.”

Overall, the conception rate was 0.4% better for the heifers which were naturally mated. From the 15 replicates over the entire PDS the conception rate was 0.8% better on average for the heifers enrolled in the FTAI program. The statistics are summarized below.

Once calving commenced, the heifers which conceived to the AI program calved well in advance of most of the naturally mated heifers. In fact, over the complete PDS data set, 63.8% of the heifers in the FTAI Integrated group had calved by the scheduled calving start date vs. 21.6% among the naturally mated heifers, mostly due to the inherent value of synchronization but also due to selection of AI sires with short gestational lengths, coupled with calving ease and sold growth EBV’s.

The advantages afforded by a higher proportion of the pregnancies being sired from proven bulls was relatively evident once the dystocia (or calving trouble) statistics were compiled, demonstrating a reduction of 33% in dystocia, 56% in calf mortalities, and 100% in heifer mortalities associated with calving averaged over the three years. The statistics, including those from all of the producer demonstration sites over the tree years are summarized below.

The rebreeding statistics were collected from each farm in the PDS. Alfie’s heifers, which had been enrolled in the FTAI program as heifers, enjoyed a significant improvement in subsequent conception rate after delivering their first calves. Those from within the group which had been AI’d had 56% fewer empties at rebreeding. A similar advantage was observed in 8 of the 10 sites over the first two years of the program. Data is still being collected from the animals enrolled in the third year. The apparent advantage is believed to primarily be driven by the higher proportion of heifers calving earlier in the calving season within the FTAI Integrated groups. It is well established that in most instances, heifers which calve early tend to have higher subsequent conception rates. Combining the value of synchrony and the use of short gestational AI sires, the heifers enrolled in the FTAI Integrated groups calved over 8 days earlier on average than their siblings. Alfie’s rebreeding data, is summarized below.

The value of synchrony extended beyond rebreeding, as the weaners from the FTAI Integrated heifers were consistently heavier than those from the naturally mated group at Katanka. The calves born from the FTAI Integrated group from the first year of the program were only 6 kilograms heavier, however, they were a whopping 20.6 kilograms heavier in the second year, for an average of 13.3 kilograms. Ryan commented, “Katanka’s heifer calves already typically weaned 10kg heavier than the rest of the farm but to improve that by another 13kg was huge.” The findings at Katanka aligned well with the average from all other farms reporting weaning weight data, which averaged out to a 13.1 kilogram advantage.

In consultation with Esperance producers both participating and observing the PDS, some economics were applied to the findings of the PDS. Having accounted for all of the AI mating costs to each cooperating producer for semen, pharmaceuticals, technician time, and travel, the average cost to each producer would have been $24.99 more to AI and back up at 2% bulls than to naturally join all of their heifers to bulls at 3%. Alfie’s calculated FTAI integration costs, due to his distance from town, were $31.44 extra per pregnancy to integrate AI over his entire budgeted heifer population. At full cost, Alfie’s AI program cost him $56.27 per head AI’d. Producer labour was estimated at 40 hours at $30 per hour per 100 heifers AI’d over the course of the average AI program. However, Ryan noted, “The other major cost saving was the labour saved calving the AI group. Whilst constant checking is still required, having tighter calving windows turned a 7 week job into a 4-5 week job plus with less heifer intervention required from the calves conceived to AI.”

Pregnant heifers were valued at an additional $100 per animal compared to empty heifers diagnosed at preg test. Dystocia events were estimated to average $200 in labour and/or veterinary costs per case. Deceased calves were valued at $500 and deceased heifers at the point of calving at $2000. Kilograms of calf weaned were valued at $4.00 per kilogram live weight. Lastly, empty 2nd calvers were devalued by $1000 per animal should they be empty at their second pregnancy test.

The mathematics for Alfie stack up quite neatly as can be seen from the worksheet below which shows the financial benefits captured within one year of the intervention, primarily driven by heavier weaners and better pregnancy rates at the heifers’ second mating opportunity.

“I also noticed that a higher percentage of the heifer’s heifer calves were ending up selected as replacements from the FTAI integrated group which would rapidly decrease the time taken for genetic improvement within the herd.” Ryan said, adding “After participating in the trial and proving the benefits of FTAI in heifers, Katanka now AI all their heifers even under new management. I also continue to do the same with my own heifers and will never look back.”

Above: Ryan Willing addressing producers and industry representatives at the ASHEEP 2020 Cattle Field Day.

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ASHEEP Esperance

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