While the majority of suckler herds in Northern Ireland are spring-calving, there are plenty of farmers that prefer to operate an autumn-calving herd.

This can be down to land type, housing set-up, labour and a preference to suit specific markets when selling cattle.

Autumn calving can be a more expensive system to operate. Cows require high-quality silage and supplementary concentrates to drive milk production, as well as fertility to get animals settled back in-calf.


However, autumn-calving has one natural advantage over spring-calving, in that it is naturally suited to using artificial insemination.

Having cows housed during the breeding period makes it easy to watch for heats and inseminate animals.

AI offers herd owners access to the best possible genetics within cattle breeding, regardless of the size of the herd.

Different sires can be selected to suit certain cows and with the advances in sexed semen technology, maternal genetics can be used with no negative impact on the quality of male calves.


With the rise in input costs, breeding calves with high levels of feed efficiency and potential weight gain has never been more important.

For August and September-calving cows, breeding will start in late October. For farmers giving thought to using AI for the first time, outlined are 10 tips to making best use of AI.

1House cows in advance of breeding

Having cows in a stress-free environment is important to achieve high conception rates to AI. The same goes with natural service.

Therefore, housing cows at least two weeks before the start of the breeding period will allow them to settle in the shed and on to a silage diet.

Even if weather conditions are good over the next month, and there is still grass to nip off, proceed with housing maiden heifers and the August-calving cows well ahead of breeding. Leave the autumn cows that calved last outside to clean off grass.

Housing too close to breeding, or just after service will have a negative effect on conception rates and should be avoided.

2Offer cows a consistent diet

Once cows are housed, their diet can be controlled, unlike when cows graze autumn grass, which can be wet one day and dry the next.

Keeping cows on a consistent diet throughout the breeding period, and for one month post-service, will improve conception rates.

Keep in mind that an August or September-calving cow will hit peak lactation around the same time that breeding starts. As such, these cows have a growing requirement for energy in their diet.

Ideally, offer cows high-quality silage (70+ D-Value) and supplement with 1kg to 1.5kg/day of concentrate to increase dry matter energy intake.

Once cows are settled in-calf, concentrate feeding can be reduced or stopped, depending on silage reserves. Cows can be maintained on just high-quality silage in late lactation.

With average to good silage (66 to 69 D-Value), increase concentrate feed levels to 2kg to 3kg/day, depending on quality.

3Give priority feeding to thin cows

Cows in poor body condition will be slow to come back into heat and tend to be harder to get back in-calf.

As cows are housed, separate out all animals that are on the thin side (below condition score 2.5). Include any cow that is suckling twins in this group.

Pen together for priority feeding and increase concentrate levels by 1kg/day over the main herd. Make sure all cows can access concentrate along the feed face at the same time.

4Keep on top of parasite control

When cows are housed, treat internal parasites with a dosing product that targets worms and early immature fluke. Such a fluke product can be given around two weeks post-housing.

This should kill internal parasites just as the breeding period begins. Healthy cows that are free of parasite burdens are more likely to hold to first service with AI.

5Mineral supplementation

Silage can be low in minerals and trace elements. Concentrate rations do have minerals included, but inclusion rates can vary and not all cows get to eat their allotted allocation.

Offering additional minerals can help boost fertility. This can be in the form of a drench, powder on top of forage, bolus or lick bucket.

6Restrict calves to twice daily suckling

Allowing calves access to suckle the cow for a short period in the morning and again in the evening can bring cows back into heat much faster.

Cows also tend to exhibit much stronger heats. Research has shown there is no negative effect on calf performance.

Start restricting calves from sucking the cow once they get to around four weeks old. Lock calves in the creep area, giving then access to the cow for a couple of hours each morning and evening. Once cows are settled in-calf, the calf can then get ad-lib access to the cow again.

7Heat detection

When using AI, heat detection is crucial to achieve high conception rates. In theory, it should be easier to watch cows for signs of heat in the shed. But cows can have weaker heats when penned on slats.

Watch cows at least three times per day, allowing 20 minutes for each observation. Morning and late evening are usually the best times to monitor cows.

An important point to remember is that cows should be observed while they are at ease. Therefore, enter the shed quietly. Do not start pushing silage into the feed barriers. This disrupts cows from their natural behaviour.

There are numerous heat detection aids available to help pick up cows that are cycling. These are as simple as tail paint to more high tech devices linked to a smartphone.

8When should cows be inseminated?

Traditionally, when using AI, the rule of thumb was that a cow seen in heat in the morning should be served that evening and vice versa.

However, some research shows that once-a-day insemination can work equally as well and cuts down the amount of time separating cows for serving.

9Stress free handling

Cows that are stressed before inseminating are unlikely to hold in-calf. Good handling pens are a must to move cows from the group pens to the head-locking gate.

Always move cows slowly. Walk at the cow’s pace, not yours. Return the cow to the group pen immediately after serving.

10Record heats and inseminations

Keep a record of all heats and insemination dates. This makes it easy to watch cows for signs of repeat breeding activity three weeks after inseminating.

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