Black Hills beef: The beginning of life

This is the second story in a multi-part series the Black Hills Pioneer that takes a look at ranching in the Black Hills. It will run on occasion in the Farm Forum.
Alex Portal

Editor’s Note

SPEARFISH — The cattle industry has played as major a role in the history of the Black Hills since the gold rush of 1876, and it continues to shape the region’s history to this day.

Aaron Thompson is one Black Hills rancher keeping that history alive by managing the same land his family has worked since 1888.

“We’re dug in pretty well out here,” Thompson said.

For Thompson, springtime is for starting the life cycle of his family’s livelihood.

“We’re starting our AI (artificial insemination) protocol in mid-March for a mid-April breeding,” he said.

On April 16, Thompson started inseminating his heifers, which are cows that have not yet given birth. He said he prefers to breed his heifers before the more seasoned females in order for them to give birth earlier in the calving season.

For the past six or seven years, Thompson has used artificial insemination to breed his cattle; a method, which he said gives him more control over his herd’s production, but requires a lot more work on his part.

“It is a stupid amount of work,” he said.

Thompson said he uses a device called a CIDR (controlled internal drug release) to suppress the hormone that causes estrus in his animals until he’s ready to start AI in order to sync up the cycles of the cows. Once it’s time for breeding to begin, he reintroduces the hormone to get the genetic ball rolling.

“We suppress estrus, and then try to stimulate estrus when we want it in order to get them to breed at a certain time,” he said.

During AI, Thompson enlists the service of Anita Pepin, an AI tech with American Breeders Service in Belle Fourche, to help with the process, which can be a very difficult procedure.

Unlike traditional breeding operations, which use bulls to naturally breed the females, AI allows ranchers to control breeding dates, specific genetics and more.

Thompson explained the process of inserting one hand into the rectum of the cow to feel his way through the intestinal wall to locate the reproductive tract. Once located, an AI gun is inserted into the vagina and the cervix is manipulated over the tip of the gun as it passes through three concentric rings. There the semen is deposited to fertilize the egg.

The AI gun is loaded with semen specially selected from a catalog for a specific set of genetic traits. Once his cows have all gone through the first round of AI, Thompson brings in a bull as back up.

“They call it clean up. He’s there to clean up the odd-ball stuff that you missed,” he said.

After a couple of weeks in the field letting nature take its course, Thompson brings in the few leftover cattle, who still need to be bred, back into the chutes for another round of AI. After that, the bull gets one more shot to do his job before the cows are preg-checked, and the underperformers are weeded out of the herd.

Thompson said timing is extremely important during AI, making sure as many cows are impregnated within the span of a month is vital for planning the next year’s calving season.

“What that does is that gives you a more and more unified calf crop on the other end because you don’t have calves selling in the same pen that were born in February and were born in April,” he explained.

Thompson said in addition to calving season, AI gives the rancher the ability to select what genetic material is being used to produce the best offspring for their herd’s needs.

“A cow, she has to work for a living,” Thompson said.

There are a lot of genetic factors that go into a cow’s ability to perform, Thompson said. The American Angus Association compiles data from registered cattle ranches across the country about the genetic traits being transmitted through their AI programs. Thompson said the association is like a huge machine, with a great deal of moving parts, which contribute to how it functions.

“It’s a function of financial incentive(s) that drive the businesses that put the bulls into these catalogs, it’s a function of what the producer is demanding; we’ve been so focused on production and making bigger, heavier calves and all that, that maybe we went a little too far in that spectrum and given up some of those functionality traits for performance traits.”

Thompson said the association has done a lot of great work in helping to streamline cattle production, but like any industry, there have been some sacrifices made in the name of efficiency.

“Nothing happens in this world unless it’s efficient … sometimes that efficiency costs you in ways that you’re not aware of until it’s obvious,” he said.

Thompson explained that time is the best determiner of genetics, but as with any business, time equals money.

Thompson said using genetic traits seen in younger animals does not give an accurate picture of how that animal would perform later in life. One example Thompson gave was attributing the quality of a young cow’s udders to its lineage without allowing time for the genetics to prove out.

“All cows have great udders when they’re young, but as they mature, that udder starts to fall apart,” he said.

Thompson said the association realized the issue and took action to address the problem, but it has taken many years to normalize.

“Very rarely do we have to cull a cow because she’s got a horrible bag,” he said.

“It just goes to show how important that genetic selection is and how easy it is to, through no one person’s fault, create some fairly industry-wide problems.”

Thompson said contemplating the genetics of his herd is one of the aspects of raising cattle that most appeals to him, but by no means is it the norm among ranchers.

“It’s wildly complicated,” he said. “That’s the thing about this industry, the margin between doing it right and doing it wrong; it’s almost invisible.”

Along with using genetics to breed the best beef for the Black Hills, there is also a concerted effort for ranchers and cattlemen to open their barn doors more to the public and allow people to meet their livestock and gain a better perspective of their place in the food chain.

“There’s definitely a segment of the consumer that wants that relationship with that chain that their food is coming off of,” Thompson said. “I think there’s opportunity there for us; I think we’ve got a great story.”

Heifers wait in a chute for their turn in the artificial insemination chamber.
Aaron Thompson explains how an artificial insemination gun is used to inseminate a cow.
Aaron Thompson carefully extracts frozen bull semen from a cryo chamber before thawing and loading it into an artificial insemination gun.

This is the second story in a multi-part series by the Black Hills Pioneer that takes a look at ranching in the Black Hills. It will run on occasion in the Farm Forum.