If you want your cow to continue producing milk, at some stage she’s going to need to have another calf. Essentially you have two options, either artificial insemination (AI) or a bull. We have tried both. If you’re going to use artificial insemination, talk to your vet a few weeks in advance and arrange with them to have the appropriate semen ready. You will need to call them again on the day your cow is in “standing heat” (explained below) and arrange for a house call. In total this only cost us $100, but we are only 10 km from town, a vet may charge considerably more if they have to travel further. There is no guarantee that artificial insemination will work the first time and you may need several visits to get the timing perfect. When the vet came, he just asked us to lead Bella to her bales, he didn’t need to restrain her any more than we do for milking. I was surprised how good Bella was, considering how much she kicks us when we are trying to milk her, she didn't seem to mind having the vet's hand up her rear end at all!
You will need to learn to recognise the signs that she’s on heat, this will allow you to track her ovulation cycles so you can work out the ideal timing for her to be artificially inseminated or for her to visit the bull. A cow’s cycle will last around 21 days, so after you have noted her coming on heat a few times, you should be able to predict the timing fairly accurately. Our dairy farmer friend says that cows are “moody like women”, and I have to agree, you do see Bella in different moods and when she's on heat she gets particularly short-tempered. A couple of days leading up to standing heat, Bella will bellow at us when she sees us and try to ride the other cattle (including her calf). When she's in "standing heat" she will stand while the other cattle try to mount her, and this is the ideal time for insemination, by either method. She will also usually have a swollen vulva and some mucus discharge. After standing heat there is usually a very small amount of blood discharge (which you can often find as a line on her tail). The most important thing is to closely observe your cow and take notes of any changes in behaviour so that you can begin to get an idea of the timing of her cycle.
Here's Bella and Molly when Molly was still a heifer
We were worried that Molly, being a heifer, would be more difficult to artificially inseminate, so we looked for a suitable bull, and we found Donald, the Dexter bull. Dexters are tiny, he was only 1m tall at his hips, but he was big enough to get the job done. Donald only cost us $300, and he has produced five pregnancies and three calves before his unfortunate demise, so he has earned his keep, but he was extra work and an extra mouth to feed He broke fences several times to fight with the full sized bull in our neighbour’s paddock. Using a bull is easier than AI because you don’t have to identify heat exactly, he works that out for you. However, you may find that you have little choice in the timing of the pregnancy, as cow and bull will break fences to be together when the time is right. If you don’t have space or inclination to buy a bull, you can often borrow or rent a bull, or take your cow to visit someone else’s bull.
Whichever method you chose to get your cow “in calf”, you will also need to decide what breed of bull (or semen) you want to use. We chose small bulls so that our cows have small calves and (relatively) easy births. You may also choose to use a meat breed if you want to raise the calf for meat, or a dairy breed if you’re hoping for a baby house cow.
Remember how cute Monty was as a calf?
Some helpful information about artificial insemination and heat detection here and here.
How do you tell when your cow is on heat? Do you use AI or a bull?