Evaluating the Sustainability of Beef Cattle Breeding Systems

Project Overview

Project Type: Research and Education
Funds awarded in 2012: $199,995.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Region: North Central
State: North Dakota
Project Coordinator:
Dr. Carl Dahlen
North Dakota State University

Annual Reports


  • Animals: bovine


  • Animal Production: livestock breeding
  • Education and Training: demonstration, extension, focus group, networking, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Farm Business Management: budgets/cost and returns, agricultural finance
  • Sustainable Communities: partnerships, sustainability measures


    The purpose of the project is to evaluate two beef cattle breeding systems with a focus on understanding three key areas of sustainability within each system: production, performance, and profit. Within herds at each location, cows were assigned to one of two breeding systems: 1) cows will be bred via natural service bulls (NS); and 2) cows will be bred via artificial insemination followed by exposure to natural service bulls (AI).

    Producers at each location worked closely with their country Extension agent to accomplish research objectives and project personnel were on location at each operation at least four times in order to accomplish research objectives. The project was split into 2 cohorts, one starting in 2013 and one in 2014.  Three meetings are held separately for each cohort of producers.  At each meeting surveys and tests are administered to gather data and focus group sessions are held to discuss topics pertinent to the current stage of the project.  In addition, focus group sessions are held with participating county Extension staff at each meeting to gather input about their perceptions of the effort and how the project has impacted them professionally and personally.

    Cooperating operations beginning project in in Year 1 (2013) included Sorenson Ranch in Watford City, ND, Alme Farm & Ranch in Balfour, ND, Enge Farm & Ranch in Stanley, ND, and Hintz Stock Farms in New Salem, ND. In Year 2 (2014) 6 commercial beef operations (Cohort 2) began their collaborations with the effort: Cooperating operations added in Jim Enge in Stanley ND, TJ Alme in Balfour, ND, Aaron Hintz in Year 2 include Jerid and Camie Janikowski in Bowman, ND, Klein Ranch in Hazen, ND, Kent and Judy Oland in Sheldon, ND, Dustin Roise in Powers Lake, ND, Chris and Nadine Tedford in McKlusky, ND, and Rodney and Karen Schmidt in Streeter, ND.

    A midpoint meeting was held for Cohort 2 participants in early 2015 to field questions from participating producers about what to anticipate during their upcoming calving season, and to have focus group conversations about project activities and how their herd production, performance, and profit measures could be used to improve their operation’s sustainability.  A joint summary meeting was held jointly for producers in Cohort 1 and Cohort 2 to summarize calving and weaning information, make appropriate data comparisons, and discuss the sustainability of each breeding system on producer operations. Data collection from Year 1 was completed in late 2014/2015, whereas data collection from Year 2 was completed in late 2015/2016.  Analysis of all data revealed that no differences (P = 0.54) were present in season ending pregnancy rates between cows in the NS (93.1%) and AI (93.2%) treatments. Cows in the TAI treatment calved 7.7 d earlier (P < 0.001) in the calving season compared with NS cows. A greater proportion (P < 0.001) of TAI cows (45.6%) gave birth in the first 21 d of the calving season compared with NS cows (24.7%).  From d 22 to 42, a greater proportion (P < 0.001) of NS cows (41.9%) gave birth compared to TAI cows (27.3%), and a greater proportion of NS cows (24.7%) gave birth from d 42 to the end of the calving season compared with TAI cows (18.6%).  Calf weaning weights were greater (P < 0.001) for calves from the AI treatment (549.8 lb.) compared with calves from the NS treatment (533.9 lb.).  

    Partial budget analyses were completed for each herd to discuss how the effort has impacted the outlook each producer has regarding their operation and what subsequent steps each producer plans to take to position their operation for long-term sustainability. Two scenarios were considered for a total of 2 partial budget analyses for each operation: 1) clean-up bull numbers remained similar to previous years when TAI was not utilized (stocking rate of 1 bull per 25 cows), and 2) clean-up bull numbers were reduced to the mean number used in the industry after AI is implemented (1 bull per 39 cows; Dahlen et at., 2015). When evaluating scenario 1 and the average profit or loss for the participating herds, 5 producers made money, 5 producers lost money (assuming cost to implement AI were incurred by producers rather than grant funds) with a mean results of -$12.04/cow with the addition of an AI breeding system compared with a NS breeding system. In scenario 2, however, 9 of 10 producers made money with a mean increase in profit averaging $13.84/cow exposed to AI.

    We documented that participating producers have increased skills, awareness and knowledge of breeding systems, herd performance, and financial aspects of their operation. We also documented that all producers have shared information regarding the project with other producers and 8 of 9 producers responding to survey questions indicated that they have changed their breeding systems as a result of their participation in the project.

    Major themes from focus group sessions conducted after all data were returned to producers revealed that some benefits of breeding systems evaluated are not short-term and were not accounted for in partial budget analysis. Specifically, items including improved genetics of cow herd, value of replacement heifers, and improved value of calves that are sold direct to feedyards or through auction markets that was not directly related to final weight (i.e. phenotypic differences or perceptions by buyers of differing value from calves originating from the respective breeding systems).  Producers were divided as to the relative value they perceived from being involved in a cow herd record keeping program (CHAPS) and had strong feelings as to whether they would continue with the program.  All were in agreement, however, regarding the importance of some type of financial record keeping system and that such a system can positively contribute to the long term sustainability of their operation.


    Commercial cattlemen represent the vast majority of beef producers in the U.S. (managed on 90.5% of beef operations; NAHMS 2009a) and contribute greatly to maintaining diversity in our natural landscapes and healthy rangeland ecosystems. The area of production most critical in terms of profit potential in commercial cow-calf operations is the ability of a cow to give birth and raise a healthy calf until weaning.  Reproductive performance is variable among herds (Larson et al., 2006; Dahlen et al., 2010) and estimates indicate the beef industry loses $1.06 billion in revenue annually as a result of infertility (Lamb et al., 2008).  Identifying reproductive techniques or management practices that enhance reproductive performance would have a significant economic impact.

    Incorporating estrous synchronization (ES) and artificial insemination (AI) into beef operations may result in improved reproductive performance, weaning weight, carcass quality, and genetic value, along with reduced calving difficulty (Sprott, 1999). While much research has been conducted to develop estrous synchronization protocols to facilitate AI (Lauderdale, 2009), a great majority of research is designed to compare one type of estrous synchronization protocol with another type of synchronization protocol and the study is completed upon collection of final pregnancy data. 

    For commercial cattlemen these types of studies offer little insight into the potential effects of incorporating estrous synchronization and AI into their operations. The control group best suited for commercial cattlemen without experience with AI is their default breeding management system; natural service (bull breeding).  In addition, effects of a breeding strategy are present long after a final pregnancy examination.  Changes in calving season, and calf characteristics both at birth and at weaning contribute greatly to a cattlemen’s decision of whether to incorporate a given strategy.

    Breeding systems that have the potential to alter the proportion of cows giving birth to calves and coincident calf characteristics are inherently entwined with the concepts of sustainability.  This project will focus on production, performance, and profit aspects of natural service and artificial insemination breeding systems and provide sound data to help beef producers decipher whether it is worth the required opportunity cost to dedicate three additional days to the cow herd in order to accomplish AI during a season when time and labor resources are very precious commodities.

    Project objectives:

    Short term outcomes:

    1. Determination of production, performance, and profit responses of two beef cattle breeding systems implemented on each of 10 cooperating producer operations.
    2. Increased skills, awareness and knowledge of cooperating producers regarding breeding systems, herd performance, and beef production system finances
    3. Continuing education for NDSU Extension and ND Farm Business Management groups
    4. Creation of a network of producers and Extension agents that fosters discussion and group learning related to the sustainability of beef production systems


    Intermediate outcomes:

    1. Documented changes over time in perception of participating collaborators and producers regarding breeding systems, herd performance, and beef production system finances  
    2. Increased use of the tested breeding strategies, herd performance evaluation and Farm Business Management services by producers participating in the project
    3. Improved sustainability (optimization of profitability and quality of life) for participating producers
    4. Increased awareness and knowledge of breeding systems, herd performance, and beef production system finances of producers, students, veterinarians, and members of allied industries attending programs, receiving educational materials produced via grant-related activities, or otherwise interacting with personnel involved with the proposed project.
    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.