Artificial Insemination in Cattle

An experienced livestock veterinarian offers a primer on artificial insemination in cattle.

| November/December 1981

Artificial insemination (AI)—the process of collecting live sperm from a male and introducing them into a female's reproductive tract at the proper time to produce offspring—was first researched back in 1783 by a man named Lazzaro Spallanzani, who conducted experiments with dogs in order to perfect the technique.

The first commercial AI organization in this country didn't begin operation until 1938—many years after the practice was instigated in Europe—but today, artificial insemination in cattle is responsible for the conception of more than a third of all dairy calves. Goats, dogs, pigs, and horses are also bred by AI, though not so extensively as are cattle.

AI can be your best bet, too, whether your herd is large or small. For instance, besides profiting from the relatively low cost involved (compared to the expense of feeding and maintaining a bull), the would-be breeder can pick a sire from the best of stock without having to consider how far away the male animal may actually be. Furthermore, many diseases associated with the reproduction process can be controlled, and often eliminated, by using AI.

Perhaps its greatest advantage, though, is that AI extends the use of service by superior bulls. A sire that's proved capable of transmitting desirable traits to his offspring can thus be mated to thousands of cows.

How It's Done

The semen is selected by using an artificial vagina (a rigid tube with an inner rubber sleeve that's been warmed with water and lubricated). The bull is tricked into mounting a "teaser" animal—usually a steer—and an attendant directs the bull's penis into the tube and traps the ejaculate. Sperm is gathered once or twice a week, depending on the weather and the bull's disposition.

A healthy, vigorous bull will produce from 300 million to two billion sperm cells in each milliliter of a normal five- to six-milliliter ejaculate. Ten million active sperm cells are considered an adequate number for one insemination, and, generally speaking, 70% of the sperm cells in a healthy ejaculate will be motile.

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