Biotechnology in Cattle: Artificial Insemination


Over the next few weeks, I’ll be working on several farms as breeding season for our cattle ramps up. As a part of my effort to share more information about biotechnology as it relates to cattle reproduction, this post will address the process we use when breeding cattle. Please leave any questions it may bring to mind in the comments section below or submit a direct message via the contact form on the Ask a Farmer page.

Artificial Insemination (AI) is the most valuable management practice to the cattle producer. The procedure makes efficient use of the generous supply of sperm available from an individual male in a manner that greatly increases genetic progress as well as improving reproductive efficiency in many situations.

Artificial Insemination: The deposition of sperm cells within the female reproductive tract by mechanical or instrumental means for the purpose of breeding.
Biotechnology: biological processes developed in the laboratory and made available in the commercial markets.

AI was the first biotechnology applied to improve reproduction and genetics of farm animals. Reproductive efficiency using AI is at least as good as using natural mating when no diseases are present and good management practices are employed. When certain diseases enter the picture, especially venereal diseases, AI becomes an important factor in their control.

Advantages and Disadvantages of Artificial Insemination

Advantages of AI far outweigh the disadvantages:

  1. Genetic improvement through more accurate evaluation of transmitting ability of males, continued after the death of the male
  2. Use of semen from genetically elite sires increases the accuracy and intensity of selection
  3. Control of venereal or other diseases
  4. Improved record keeping on farms where used
  5. More economical than natural service when genetic merit is considered
  6. Safer by the elimination of dangerous bulls on the farm, especially for the dairy breeds

Disadvantages of AI include the amount of time livestock managers must spend checking females for estrus. Some special facilities for corralling and insemination are required. Trained personnel are required to perform the technique.

Process of Artificial Insemination

  • First the semen is collected from males through artificial insemination methods

    artificial insemination AI cattle reproduction biotechnology
    Image courtesy of Select Sires AI training materials.
  • Technicians make certain the semen contains sperm of sufficient quality and quantity to survive freezing and thawing with enough viable sperm to complete conception
  • Semen is examined in the laboratory for foreign material and quality. Quality is determined by the number of sperm per millimeter of semen, how active sperm are (motility) and the shape of the sperm
  • Semen is preserved by storing it in tanks of liquid nitrogen at a temperature of -320 degrees F or below
  • At the time of insemination the semen containing the sperm is thawed, the technician then injects the semen into the female reproductive tract. This requires a degree of skill.

Artificial Insemination in Different Species

Merck Veterinary Manual gives a good overview of AI and reproductive technologies in many species:

This is an introduction to artificial insemination (AI) in livestock. If you have more specific questions, please leave a comment below or submit a question in the Ask a Farmer tab. Submissions will be used to answer questions in my series on biotechnology.

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15 Comments

  1. Ryan, We’re considering AI for offspring from cows purchased and our Bull that we expect in 2014. Can you post about how that experience takes place, coming out to a small farm, beginning from that phone call you make to locate a source to do the AI ? ( And if you know any good sources around Knoxville, that’ll help, too! lol )

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  2. Agree – the availability of trained people to do it at the time needed is key. The maintenance of the tank etc is often skipped over as ‘everyone knows’ but if you don’t know it’d be easy to lose a pile of money in a hurry.

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      1. Exactly! For small places, it may be advantageous to use AI rather than a bull, but if they don’t have the ability to inseminate, then a bull is the option left.

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  3. Hi Ryan,

    I enjoy your post featuring Cattle Repro. I would like to point out that with today’s synch protocols and efficiency of fixed timed AI – heat detection is not necessary. In fact most cattle producers with the help of AI technicians can appointment breed and schedule breeding. In fact, cattle producers can effectively take care of a year’s worth of work (producing a live calf) in one day just by synchronization and TAI.

    I would also like to point out with today’s bull prices (keep in mind the national average of cows a bull settles natural service per year is 17.3) AI is a lot more cost effective – BEFORE you even account for the better genetic gain. There is also evidence that just by exposing a female to synchronization, establishing her as an early calving female for the rest of her life, has financial benefits per cow as well – again this too is not including the genetic gain. It is simply by calculating added age of her calves at weaning compared to later calving females in same herd and her production over her lifetime.

    Thanks for posting!

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    1. Thanks for the comment Katy!

      Heat detection isn’t necessary, but it adds that much more value to the AI protocols and can be very useful when cattle are easy to corral, like in dairy or small operations.

      And it’s true that AI and the tools required are cheaper than an investment in an extra bull. Hopefully our protocols will continue to be refined and we will continue receiving higher conception rates per cow serviced.

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    1. Highly depends on the operator’s ability to detect heat and breed accordingly. And then some animals may show little visual signs of heat. Poor heat detection can easily lead to poor conceptions rates. That is the key part to breeding on visual heat.

      Timed AI is easier if the producer does not have the time/ability to detect heat. Conception rates can be equal given everything is done correctly.

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