On-farm semen collection is a valuable tool

With a valuable bull, on-farm collection becomes 
like an insurance plan preserving his genetics for the future

This is the time of year when either your own hot breeding prospects or ones for sale are coming to the forefront.

A good insurance plan is collecting semen on these hot new or proven prospects, especially when you incorporate artificial insemination into your program. This article will review some of the finer points of on-farm semen collection.

On-farm semen collection has evolved greatly over the last several years, and now involves much less testing for disease than previously. Today, some simple reporting to the government is all that is necessary — we no longer need to test for brucellosis. It must be emphasized that on-farm semen collection is only for your own use. If multiple owners own a syndicated bull, each owner can receive some semen but it cannot be resold commercially.

With a valuable bull, on-farm collection becomes like an insurance plan preserving the genetics of that bull for future usage in the event he is sold, dies, becomes incapable of natural service, or his testicles degenerate. There are, as you all know, a myriad of things making a bull incapable of breeding. So semen in the tank is breeding insurance if the bull’s genetics are important to maintain your breeding program. However, you still may want to insure a valuable bull through the normal channels so he can be replaced in the event some unforeseen event happens.

On-farm collection resembles a semen evaluation but there are many further steps taken. In my opinion, it is very important to help ensure success of the collection by conducting a breeding soundness evaluation or BSE (this is the good abbreviation, not the one for bovine spongiform encephalopathy) done shortly before (within two weeks) of collection. This ensures the semen is fresh, very low in defects and that you can get adequate volume to make collection worthwhile.

There are three avenues for collection. There are a small number of accredited private veterinarians in Western Canada who collect semen. The commercial stud operations also run on-farm collection — often as a day service whereby the bull is transported to the farm, its semen collected and returned home. Again the tests are avoided. But for resale in Canada or any other country, appropriate testing must be done by your accredited veterinarian and the collection made at an AI stud which is appropriately certified and has quarantine facilities set up. The semen must then be quarantined as well as stored and distributed out of these facilities when sold. Yet another avenue for on-farm collection has private veterinarians collect and extend the semen then ship it via courier in specially designed containers, which chill the semen en route. This may be simpler for the producer but there are many variables out of our control such as speed of the courier and ambient temperatures. Often the semen is then chilled for at least a day before processing. In remote locations this may be an option, but be warned the failure rate is definitely higher than direct on-farm collection.

From the Canadian Cattlemen website:
Common pitfalls with semen evaluations and how to avoid them

Private veterinarians will use an electroejaculator like they do for normal testing, but the object is to stimulate longer to get the maximum amount. The sample is still checked for motility and morphology. I like a high standard for morphological defects, and keeping the semen warm (around 35 C) is critical at this point. A count is done to determine the concentration (number of sperm per millilitre) and based on the volume collected, a final calculation gives us the number of straws to put up. The goal is to strive for 10 million live sperm per straw, taking into account the freezing and thawing process will kill up to half of the live sperm (some are dead to start with). Most times 30 million to 40 million sperm are put up in each straw. More is not always better as too many sperm can lead to detrimental results. The semen is extended (diluted) to the proper concentration using a commercially made product mixed in exacting proportions with egg yolk and distilled water.

Cooling

Once diluted properly with extender, the semen is gradually chilled over at least a three-hour period and then loaded into the properly labelled straws and sealed. Another timed process has the semen gradually frozen in liquid nitrogen. The straws are then loaded into canes, which are also properly labelled and placed in your tank.

The final test is performing a post thaw on the semen to ensure it has survived well enough through the freezing process. This is where all the hard work hopefully pays off. Semen from some bulls simply does not freeze well and even though all the parameters are good going in, the post thaw fails and the semen must be destroyed. You need certain criteria on frozen semen or conception rates would suffer and that would be more of a disaster than discarding some semen.

Hopefully this article has explained the process clearly and for some, this may be a very viable procedure on some young herd bull prospects this spring. Costs are generally based on a collection fee and a per-straw fee for putting up the semen. There are probably fellow breeders who have had this done who would be worth talking to. This will give you the producer perspective and make your decision easier. As the cattle industry recovers, AI is increasing in popularity to maximize gain and that is where having semen in the tank from good-quality bulls will give you genetic gain. It can be done for both bulls in purebred herds and commercial herd sires.

Have a great breeding season and may all the sperm swim straight.

About the author

Contributor

Roy Lewis practised large-animal veterinary medicine for more than 30 years and now works part time as a technical services veterinarian for Merck Animal Health.

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