Artificial insemination boasts a colorful history
Published on March 21, 2020
Many seedstock beef herds utilize artificial insemination (AI) and a growing number of commercial herds are moving towards AI on their heifers and high-performing cows.
This is a way to extend the benefits of a good bull, make sure heifers are bred to easy-calving bulls or utilize genetics of multiple outstanding sires without having to own them. The process and technology, along with conception rates for AI have improved tremendously in the past 50 years, but the procedure is not new.
Legend has it the first use of artificial insemination was in horses, accomplished by Arab sheiks who wanted to utilize bloodlines of tribal enemies. They would sneak up to the other tribe’s herd at night with a mare in heat and secretly collect semen from the desired stallion into a leather pouch and take it back to their camp to inseminate a prize mare.
Early AI usage
The earliest documented use of artificial insemination was in 1780 when an Italian physiologist named Spallanzani produced puppies with AI in dogs. A few more reports of successful AI breeding appeared during the 1800s, but it wasn’t until about 1900 that extensive studies with farm animals began in Russia.
A scientist named Ivanov developed the technique for mares, and by 1930 he and his associates were doing artificial insemination of cattle and sheep.
By 1938, AI was used in U.S. dairy herds and a few beef herds using extended and cooled liquid semen, packaged in glass vials. Most AI studs were local, because fresh semen couldn’t be transported very far.
Carl Rugg, owner of Bovine Elite, LLC, says when he first became interested in AI, the process was performed by veterinarians who serviced cattle herds in their area, and later by specialized AI technicians who were employees of AI cooperatives.
Rugg received his master’s degree in Reproductive Physiology from Colorado State University.
“The semen distributor would bring semen from three or four bulls to the veterinarian, and in those early years it was mainly dairy bulls,” he explains. “The semen was extended with a media to prolong the life of the semen, placed in sealed glass ampules and kept cold in an ice bath.”
“The extended semen was drawn into a plastic pipette to breed the cow. Fresh, cooled semen would last two to five days, depending on the quality of the semen and fertility of the bull,” he says.
“When I was a boy in western New York, my father had Holsteins and started using AI on his cows in the late 1950s,” Rugg notes. “The veterinarian or AI technician came to the farm and discussed with dad the merits of the bulls he had available that day.”
He continues, “Dad would select a bull, the technician would retrieve the ampule of semen from the ice water bath and breed the cow.”
“Dad never had a bull on the place,” he explains. “Conception rates were high with cooled fresh semen. In those early days with fresh semen, the pregnancy rate was well above 70 percent in our herd.”
“The biggest issue was catching the cow in heat at the right time. Dad would observe the cows in the morning and evening for signs of estrus and put a chalk mark on the one to be bred,” Rugg says. “Even if we weren’t there when the technician came, the cow would be in a stall and he’d know which one to breed.”
A lot of progress has been made in reproductive and semen technology since then. Advent of frozen semen revolutionized the AI industry. Some progeny testing was done in the late 1960s and early 1970s by the Beef Improvement Federation.
The American Simmental Association had the first sire evaluation in the early 1970s. Importations of some European breeds were only possible using frozen semen and AI, due to restrictions on importing live animals.
“This was about the time we began packaging and freezing semen in French straws,” he says. “We continue to use this technique and packaging method, which allows semen to freeze and thaw with higher recovery and ultimately better conception rate with frozen semen.”
He continues, “This was an improvement over the process of freezing and storing semen in glass ampules.”
Conception rates with frozen semen have improved even more in recent decades. Being able to ultrasound the cow’s ovaries and determine time of ovulation helped researchers figure out the best time to inseminate cattle, resulting in better conception rates.
Today the AI process is easier, with synchronization protocols. All cows in the herd can be bred the same day instead of having to watch for signs of heat during breeding season.
Willie Altenburg, a cattleman in Colorado who runs registered Simmental and Angus, has worked for several semen companies and says heat synchronization and AI has worked very well for heifers.
“Heat synchronization in large herds has become commonplace for heifers as a management tool for many producers,” Altenburg says. “It allows producers to breed and calve their heifers ahead of the main cowherd.”
“Advent of the controlled internal drug release (CIDR) device and use of prostaglandin has helped with adult cows,” says Altenburg. “Today, the beef industry is doing more cow AI. Synchronization and fixed-time insemination has helped, but we need an army of arms to get this accomplished.”
“Most producers can’t breed 100 or more cows in one morning, and it can also be a challenge with some ranch facilities,” he says.
“AI organizations now have portable breeding barns and technicians who can come do chute-side service for the whole operation and get those cows all bred in a few hours,” says Altenburg.
Heather Smith-Thomas is a corresponding writer for the Wyoming Livestock Roundup. Send comments on this article to firstname.lastname@example.org.