Does the bull still have a place on modern Irish livestock farms, or has AI sailed miles ahead in recent year? – Emma McCormack – a final-year Agriculture student - shares her views.
In modern Irish farming, we have come a long way over the past few years. Is it a thing of the past to make a huge investment in a quality-produced bull for breeding purposes? Am I right in claiming that AI has taken the wheel as we move forward?
I caught up with a number of farmers, from the traditional small-scale enterprises, like my own family farm, right up the ladder to more intensive farming businesses, ran in partnership with profit in focus.
I asked questions and got varied results that make for good reading. Hence, I am going to share what I have learned. This sample I took into consideration was compiled of 56 farmers. The task was made simpler by assistance from a farming friend who put the question to his local discussion group. The ideas proposed there contributed substantially to my investigation.
I essentially wanted to know, in the opinion of the farmers themselves, with the experience behind them - where is breeding going and - is there still a more or less equal divide between the use of bulls and artificial insemination?
Of 56 farmers, 38 said AI is the only way forward and bulls are just a safety net, to be used to smooth over any missed cows or technician errors.
The other 16 who voted were adamant that the bull is still an invaluable tool if used in an efficient enterprise and that he is just as effective if not more so than any AI straw or technician.
Two farmers of the sample were quite neutral and found both methods to work well - they were indifferent to the argument.
Depending on whether you want to take the guys on the fence into account, the results still indicate that between 68% and 70% of farmers are on the AI team. That’s quite a difference and I purposely took a variety of farms into account; Irish, Scottish, large, slightly ruthless, profit-driven farmers, small, passionate family-run farms and plenty of farmers in between.
The Bull has been left behind
In my opinion, the bull has been left behind. He is a huge investment and although you could insure the purchase, it’s a risk. I can’t help but wonder if there is a better place to invest that money.
Bulls can be majestic, admirable stock, especially at purchase. Farmers will happily part with drastic amounts of hard-earned cash in exchange for an animal of quality. There’s nothing wrong with that; however, if you think realistically, all farmers working alongside us are not as honest as we wish, and there may be scepticism of an animal's true age.
It’s an issue that’s been around for some time. It may not be the farmers’ fault. There are often silly penalties and deadlines in place and farmers are busy people. If you can’t meet a deadline, your entry may be rejected or you could be subject to a penalty. I don’t think this is entirely fair and it is the cause of some inaccuracy in the livestock sector.
Also, a bull bought at a sale can deteriorate hugely. The award-winning, champion, E grade beast you hand over, say €5,000 or €6,000 for, can go miles backwards in a number of subsequent weeks to an animal of more average quality. This can often be down to the premium diet pumped into bulls before sale, which realistically, the everyday farmers won’t do, as it wouldn’t be financially viable at the end of the day.
Behind all of that, if it’s a good bull, it’s a good bull and he will maintain his desirable conformation and most importantly his genetic value.
However, fertility testing is crucial and most farmers today would test a bull to be assured of his worth before purchasing. He will need good feet, full health and high-fertility. Testing is an extra cost, not needed if using AI. The results could be super - and prove the bull to be worth his price.
The only problem is, fertility is not a fixed asset. Bulls can lose fertility or become sub-fertile over time. He may be the ideal candidate at purchase but one year on, issues may crop up when cows are not in calf.
There is also the general pressure on one animal to perform and issues such as lameness can really affect a bull if not looked after properly and immediately.
Bulls not performing can make for a serious financial setback. In my eyes, it’s safer to pay a qualified technician up to €35 (at the moment) and be sure that a cow is served as well as being sure who she’s in-calf to. The guesswork is gone. Perhaps it’s not as black and white as I think, which I do take on board but these are just my opinions.
It’s about €70 to fertility one bull and really, your results are only accurate for a short time. I’m not sure it makes sense when profit is the name of the game. I understand that errors occur even with AI and technicians require a huge skill to do what they do. It’s not something you pick up overnight. Even if they serve her, it’s not to say she will go in-calf.
However, I feel like the cost of straws is very minimal in comparison to buying a bull that you can’t say how long you’ll have him in action for or how good he will be.
People pay anything up to €250 for straws but on average, farmers seem to be happy to purchase straws for around €30-€40 and are satisfied with the result - This is a figure I’ve obtained from a senior technician with an AI company for many years now. It’s then approx. €30 for the technician to AI the cow, unless you can do it yourself, which many farmers do.
If you have issues with many cows not being in calf, you have the company to answer for it rather than a bull who is oblivious to whether he’s paying his way or not.
AI companies have commendable reputations, when the service is good and the reviews match, you can’t really go wrong. Word of mouth travels a long way and means more to farmers than a leaflet in the letterbox or an advertisement in the newspaper for an AI company. Most farmers will work from a personal recommendation and from what they tell me, it has worked well thus far.
Bulls come in handy from teasing to mopping up among other things, but making a huge once off investment in a bull to carry out a massively important job, is questionable.
Many people are savvy, and will not pay extortionate prices - perhaps buying a couple of affordable bulls from a younger age and finishing rearing them for breeding and this saves money in one respect, with more animals to cover the herd of cows meaning less pressure per unit.
However, is it not simpler, more reliable and more affordable in a way to use AI? There’s no massive up-front payment for one thing, and you can introduce huge variety to the herd with straws from thousands of superb quality bulls readily available to you. You also obviously don’t have the maintenance or cost of looking after, housing or feeding a bull. It’s no easy task.
We all know the nightmare-like phonecall from a neighbour down the road roaring about your bull being out with his/her young heifers. Is it really worth the hassle?
We are all unfortunately well-aware of how dangerous livestock and especially bulls are to our own safety. When you think of your parents, your children or your grandparents and their different roles on the farm, you never want to think of them coming to any harm.
People argue that young or elderly people shouldn’t be on the farm, but if your grandparents have created the farm business that you now run, through decades of hard grafting, you’re not going to tell them to get inside and hang up the wellies. It’s unrealistic - they shouldn’t have to give yo their love for the farm and their involvement no matter how small.
Children, myself included, grow up on farms and it does them no harm. In fact, it teaches you good morals, to work hard for what you want and how to put others, i.e. livestock’s needs before your own. Children shouldn’t be totally sheltered from the farming lifestyle. Surely, we can adapt and create a safe environment for farmers to do what they love, to farm.
Realistically bulls are the most dangerous choice you can make. It’s never relevant until it affects you directly. Livestock are the largest cause of farm accidents in Ireland. With AI, we can remove a huge risk to our lives and our staff and loved ones.
What’s stopping us? Obviously, the eradication of bulls for breeding purposes on farms completely is not practical and I’m not suggesting it. However, I have no doubt that a push in the use of AI services would, in turn, see a decline in farm accidents across the board. There’s no debate on that.
In chatting to one man with somewhat traditional views on the matter, he sort of put the theory to me that “if it isn’t broken, there’s no need to fix it”. I understand what he meant, in saying that putting a bull out to serve a herd of cows is natural farming in its realest form. He commented on how every farming practice has become so intensive and commercial over the past few years. “Is anyone letting nature take its course, just as has worked for many years now?” he questioned.
The answer is yes, but the numbers are dropping. Why? Farms are businesses too, the idea is to make money at the end of the day. If you aren’t turning over a profit at the end of most years (excluding the odd freak year such as 2018), is it worth your time and hard work? Farming is tough, and if you can’t pay the bills and have something left for yourself at the end, the enjoyment is somewhat lost.
Farming is an ever-changing, volatile sector. Just as our climate changes, we must adapt too, if we wish to succeed. The “old, natural way” is effective to a certain degree, but being open to change, even if it’s the shift from bulls to half AI or something similar, is key.
It can compact calving, and help you to put some money back into the bank, if done properly. Often change scares people and so they stick to a routine, what they know well and don’t steer away from the beaten track.
In my eyes, there’s only one question to ask - Do you want to scrape by, and get the job done with average figures on the board, or do you want to push your business forward and drive profit? I think farmers don’t value the huge work they do. What you are doing is feeding the world. You’re a workhorse and you deserve a profit for your efforts. Change with the times and use your passion for farming to create a profitable business.
Don’t be offended by my hopeful outlook. I know times are hard and there is a lot of red tape to conquer before succeeding but being motivated is half the battle. I think AI is a step in the right direction. Do you agree, or are stock bulls a solid step on the ladder that we cannot do without? Are they indispensable or just a supplementary, optional tool?
Looking forward to hearing what you, the farmer, thinks!