Breeding and calves: Using AI to meet demands of two suckler cow units

Artificial insemination (AI) in a suckler enterprise spread over two farms has proved its worth over the past 10 years for a Cumbrian farming business. Neil Ryder went to meet farmer Lisa Bennett to find out more.

Use of AI throughout their two beef sucker herds backed up by a sweeper bull has proved highly successful for a Cumbrian upland farming business giving access to better genetics than could have been afforded using the farm’s own bulls.

It has also meant the farm has just one sweeper bull, a Limousin, instead of two more expensive bulls serving the herds, which are on blocks of land more than 30 miles and one hour’s drive apart. In addition, the system has proven itself over the 10 years since it was first introduced.

Lisa Bennett and her partner Richard Clegg farm at Tongue House in Seathwaite – a National Trust-owned farm made up of 99 hectares (244 acres) inbye, around 107ha (264 acres) enclosed land, and grazing rights on 405ha (1,000 acres) of fell.

The other land is near Kentmere made up of 75ha (185 acres) owned land, 202ha (500 acres) rented land, plus fell grazing rights on Kentmere Dalehead common. While both units are classified as Severely Disadvantaged Areas (SDA), Ms Bennett says Kentmere is a ‘kinder’ farm with better grazing.

Tongue House carries 20, mostly Aberdeen-Angus cross and Blue Grey breeding cows plus about 600 Herdwick breeding ewes and 300 followers. The Kentmere unit has 34 mostly British Blonde cross sucklers including three heifers plus 900 Swaledale breeding ewes and 300 followers.

Logical step

Asked why they adopted AI for their suckler cattle Ms Bennett says: “With my background in the cattle breeding industry and where I work as a beef cattle breeding specialist, AI was a logical step.

“Also the first cattle we bought had AI-bred calves at foot, and with the amount of cattle we had did not justify spending that much on a bull.

“We came here in 2002 and set off with 15 cows with calves at foot and bought a bull to use on the cows.

“Then in 2003 we synchronised oestrus for the first time and used a fertility-plus mix of semen, which has three bulls in one straw, was used.

“That resulted in about 50 per cent conception, but the calf quality was better than calves by our own bulls and enabled us to select what breed we wanted,” she says.

“The mix we used had Limousin, Angus and Charolais in and the Charolais calf seemed to suit our Angus cross cow.

“From 2003 on we just kept doing AI. It gave us the choice of breeds and genetics would not justify paying for a bull to get one of the same quality which is available to us through AI. We have a Limousin bull, but he is just there to back up with, to chase round after the AI. This also allows us to get on with other jobs.”

Ms Bennett explains everything is served to AI twice, with serving starting at the end of June and Mr Clegg doing all the AI work.

“The bull will then be put in for three weeks at Tongue and three weeks at Kentmere, which means the Kentmere cattle can calve over a bit longer period.”

Second calvers

Ms Bennett says while it is ‘relatively easy’ to get a heifer in-calf, the second calvers can be a ‘challenge’.

“You just have to watch them a bit more and take more notice of them. Ideally it would be good to give them a little extra feed, but we can’t do this because we just don’t have the space to split them. In the past we’ve tried AI-ing the heifers a fraction sooner than the main herd, which gives them a bit longer before they are served as second calvers.”

The handling system is simple and consists of a crush at the sheep handling pens at both holdings.

“This works well and we find with a bag of sugar beet pulp our cattle will follow you anywhere. I think it is important wherever possible they follow rather than being driven. Regular handling and housing also help keep them calm and easy to handle.”

Most of the suckler cows at Kentmere are continental first crosses out of Friesian-type dairy cattle and Ms Bennett says she ‘experimented’ with breeds when they first took on rented land at Kentmere.

“We bought four dairy crosses from dairy farmers; Simmental, Limousin, Blonde, and Blue crosses out of Friesian dams. We found the Blonde crosses, for what they cost to buy would leave us the most money. They were as quiet as lambs and simply suited our needs the best of the group.”

Some changes have taken place in breeding protocols for Ms Bennett and now natural heats are used rather than synchronisation.

Chalk on the cow’s tail heads is used to spot signs of heat. ““The Blue Greys can be difficult to spot when on heat and often have silent heats so it is a case of knowing your individual animals and noticing changes in behaviour.”

The location of the holdings means ticks can be a problem so Ms Bennett buys in replacements as young calves so they have chance to build resistance before they calve and pass it on to their calves.

“All our replacements are first cross beef heifers bought from farms we know well and none come from auction.

The calves produced at both farms are sold through Borderway mart at Carlisle, but Ms Bennett does say the two farms produce different progeny.

“Tongue House is very much a low cost system using native breed crosses put to the Charolais, the cattle being there partly to meet environmental agreements.

“Kentmere is a more intensive system based on continental cross cows where we use a range of terminal sire breeds.”

Looking ahead Ms Bennett says they want to improve what they have got both in terms of the stock and also through grassland improvement, using fertiliser, lime and aeration.

Farm facts

  • Tongue House – The farmstead lies in a sheltered hollow at about 145 metres (475 foot) above sea level, with the fell rising to the 360 metres (1,180ft) contour on the crags. Rainfall is a hefty 2,540mm (100in) annually so it is not surprising most of the lower land is wet with rush control an issue
  • Kentmere is also slightly higher than Tongue running from 198 metres (650ft) to 427 metres (1,400ft) above sea level. At the time the couple took over Tongue House they had only the owned land at Kentmere
  • Sheep numbers are largely governed by environmental agreements and are much fewer than would be allowed under the two farms’ fell and common grazing rights. Lamb sales are a mix of store and finished stock depending on the market at the time but increasingly store sales
  • Tongue House is also an Eblex focus farm for the ADAS/Royal Development Programme for England uplands project

Use of AI in suckler herds

Lisa Bennett is also a Genus beef specialist for the north of England and Scotland. Here is some of her tips for successful use of AI in suckler herds. She also stresses each farm situation is different:

  • Start recording heats the cycle prior to serving them and writing anything down
  • Ensure your minerals and general nutrition balance is right. It is better if you can get animals on a rising plane of nutrition
  • Feeding sugar beet helps raise energy levels, which also helps conception
  • Avoid any sudden differences in feed
  • Have appropriate handling facilities both for ease of handling and for safety. The suckler situation is different from the dairy situation in you are inseminating cows with calves
  • Use any heat detection aids which you think will help you. If you do not use aids you will need to look at the cows three times a day to get a good rate of conception
  • Follow correct procedure with semen handling. Usually it is better to have the animal waiting in the crush before you make the gun up

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