As many other dairy farmers, you may have experienced mixed results with artificial insemination of your cows. A successful pregnancy depends on a number of variables, so what can you do to get the best possible results?
We've invited an insemination expert and a vet to share their best tips — before, during and after an insemination. Learn about the cow, the heat, the environment, the semen, the equipment and the timing.
Niels Haulrik Kristiansen, Head of Training Division for Artificial Insemination Technicians, VikingDanmark
Kaj Abrahamsen, Chief Veterinarian, VikingGenetics. Also a member of RepVet, an advisor to the European Union.
Louise Rønn Svane
Artificial insemination of dairy cows is the most common practice on farms around the world. But as many other farmers you may have experienced mixed results. Successful pregnancies depend on the condition of the cow, the environment, how you handle the semen, the equipment and the timing. You only have an 18-hour window to get it right. To give us the best step-by-step advice on how you can maximize the conception rate of your dairy herd. I've invited two experts to join me in the studio; Niels Haulrik Kristiansen, Head of Training Division for Artificial Insemination Technicians at VikingDanmark and Kaj Abrahamsen Director of Animal Health, Quality Assurance and Sanitary Compliance. And also a member of RepVet and an advisor of the EU. This is the BreedCast produced by VikingGenetics. I'm your host, Louise Roenn Svane. Well, hello and welcome, Niels and Kaj. Thank you very much for joining us at the studio. Thank you. Nice to see both of you. Niels, let's start with you. What are the key components in artificial insemination of a dairy cow? Yeah, the key components are basically that you need, of course, a cow or heifer a healthy cow or heifer in good condition that shows good heat. You need a straw of semen, good quality straw of semen with enough sperm cells. And then you have two components, and then you need a well-educated AI technician or the farmer could do it himself. So that's the basic stuff for a good insemination. So, we got the components now. When an insemination goes right or wrong, what are the reasons for that? And are there any more any factors that are more important than others? Yeah, there's a lot of factors influencing the result of an insemination. I think the most common is the general management in the herd, to have healthy cows, well-fed cows. And you have employees that can look after the cows and that are educated to look for the heat. But the most important thing for the good insemination is the general management overall. And we'll look more into that just in a sec. We know the players now, or the components, so to speak, in artificial insemination. Let's try and look at the timeline then before, during and after. Kaj, what can I do as a farmer to start preparing my cows for a successful insemination let's say a few weeks in advance or even months in advance? It already started when the cow gave birth to the last calf - that it was a good birth with no infections, no retained placentas, and the start of milking period had been good with enough energy in the feed component and she's getting in a positive energy balance. So she has the surplus to be able to carry a pregnancy because the pregnancy is a luxury. It requires more energy than just to produce the milk. So, that's what you need to do before the insemination. And to be able to monitor the cow - look when she's starting the cycle and also have a registration on that. So we know that she's in regular surplus before you're just seeing a heat and just inseminate her at the first heat. It's important that she's in normal cycle. What else might I consider in terms of feed or vitamins or management? What sort of other tools have I got to really support her the best way? The ration is so important for the cows because they are top athletes that are producing a really high amount of milk. If the ration is not balanced with vitamins and minerals, then you will face deficiency. And in the end there was no ovulation going on. Stress management is also very important for the cows. If they are stressed, that might be because of heat stress. It might be because of too many animals in the barn. The general handling of the animals should be in a calm and easy way. Stress will make the oxytecin level drop, and in that way we will not have a normal ovulation going on. Niels, what else can I do to further the foundation for a good insemination? What can I do in the surroundings or staff or environment? What might be my options? You can have well-educated employees in your herd. So, all the people around the cows know how to detect heat, when the cows are in heat and you can have some tools to help us with the activity on the cows, to find the cows in heat. And of course you need the most important thing - that the cows are not stressed. An open stable with a lot of light. What can have a negative impact on an insemination of a cow? When the insemination is going to take place that you are handling the semen in the right way. When you are having the semen in the liquid nitrogen, it is protected, but when you put it in the water baths to bring it to 38 degrees, it is important to do that in the right way. It's important to put in the pistolette in the right way and also not preparing more pistolettes than you are able to use within a short period of time. Because when you have put the semen into the liquid form, then it starts using energy. And the longer time you have it outside the uterus of the cow the more semen cells will die before they reach the eggs in the cow. And you talked about the heat, Niels. What are the signs to spot a cow in heat? There are a lot of signs from a cow in heat. The cows are a little bit more nervous and walking more in the barn. And the closer to heat they jump on other cows and yelling a little bit. And when they are in the standing heat, they stand for other cows to jump on them. So there's a lot of small signs you can use. And when the cow is in heat, there will be a liquid from the vagina and maybe the vagina will be a little bit more red. So there are a lot of signs you can use to find the cow in heat. Kaj, you talked about the artificial insemination itself before, and in recent years, it's become more common practice that maybe a farmer or one of his staff will actually perform this. What should I be aware of if I'm considering this DIY insemination? The most important is that you are taking the education and you are trained for it. From our point of view, it is a surgical procedure to do to the cow because you're not just delivering the semen in the vagina, you're actually going through the cervix and you put it into the uterus. So you can do a lot of harm to your cows and your heifers if you're not trained to do this. And if you are hurting the uterus inside, there will for sure be no pregnancy. So hopefully now we've got the cow in heat, we've spotted it, we've ordered the semen, and we've selected the person who's going to perform the insemination. Now on the day, Niels, what advice do you have to farmers who want to prepare the cow the best possible way on the day itself? It's very important to minimize stress for the cow in heat. So you have to separate the cow because it could still jump a little bit and other cows could jump on the cow in heat. So you have to separate it and get it in a separate box, but never have only one cow in a box because then it also gets stressed. You have to get more cows in the box. And when you have the cow and you need to inseminate it, you have to tie it up in a good working height for the AI technician so he can do a proper job. And maybe you can tie up some other cows around the cow so it is not walking around when you do your job. What about the insemination equipment itself and what should I be aware of? Of course, you need some good equipment. It has to be clean. And if you visit different farms, you have to disinfect the equipment between the farms. But you have to use good equipment, and use sheets to take on the semen gun. But it's very important that the equipment is okay when you start inseminating What about semen straw itself? Can I just take it out and have it out for hours? What's my window? It's very important that you follow the step-by-step plan for thawing up semen. Taking the semen up from the container, put it in the water bath with the right temperature. It's very important that the semen gun is not too hot and not too cold because if there's too many temperature ups and downs, it will damage the semen. So, you have to take good care of the semen, put it in the water bath and thawing up seven seconds. And after you have thawed up the semen, put it under your clothes. So there's no temperature ups and downs again, maybe under the clothes or you can get a cover for it. And just so we have it close by and take it out when you have to inseminate the cow. Kaj, what are the most common insemination mistakes that you've seen? You've been a vet for decades now. And what are the most common mistakes you've seen around inseminations? It might be that you are not inseminating the cow at the right time in the heat. That's very critical. We have the window where we can get the cow pregnant. And so it's important that the technician is doing the evaluation and to give a good feedback to the farmer. Is this the right time or are you too late? And if you're too late, you'll have to wait to the next heat for the insemination. Another issue is in the very large farms that you can be tempted to take ten or 15 pistolettes. And if there's no problem, it's also okay. But if the animals are not properly tied up or you will face some problems, then all of a sudden the time is sliding away and the last animal is inseminated, maybe 20 minutes or half an hour or even more after the semen has been taken out of the container. So those could be some of the major mistakes and we cannot say enough times that these ups and downs in temperature are very, very critical. So, be aware of this. Start with a lower temperature and ending up in 38 degrees in the cow instead of starting with 38 degrees, going down to 20 and up again in the cow. Then you'll lose a lot of vital sperm in your cow and in that way not reaching the egg in good shape. You're nodding, Niels, does that sound familiar to you? Yeah, I think that Kaj has mentioned the most important things. But, I think for the technician, one of the important things is that he can reject a cow that is not in heat. And that is maybe the difference between an AI technician and a farmer who do it himself, who has to be well educated and, dedicated to the job. When you train your AI technicians - because that's one of your main functions - do you have your top three things you have to remember? What are your main messages to them? Yeah, the main is take it easy. Be quiet and easy around the cows. Don't get stressed for the cows and don't get stressed yourself. And have a good feeling for the cows. I think it's the most important thing. And there's a lot of things that can go wrong when you inseminate you can be too busy or you can inseminate in the vagina or other places. And when you're thawing up semen, you can do a lot of damage to the semen. But I think the most common thing is that you are relaxed with the job and dedicated. So hopefully now we've had one of your technicians or someone else very skilled out. We've actually done the insemination. The cow is now pregnant. Kaj what can I do to further a successful six week in-calf rate - that's what we always start by going for - and then ultimately successful pregnancy? What can I do after the insemination? It's a little bit of the same story as before the insemination. We need to reduce the stress for the cow. If possible, keep her in the same group of cows. Don't change the groups just after the insemination. Don't do big changes in the feeding. Each time we make a change in feeding a cow is stressed. And all the handling is very important after that. Avoid heat stress. It can be very difficult in some areas of the world to avoid heat stress. But putting up fans, having the shadow. So we ensure good shape for the cows. One thing that's been highlighted in recent years also, actually collaboration. We talked a little bit about it, Niels, when you and I first met. The collaboration between parties because it's not just the farmer and the cow and the AI technician. There's a circle of players around the cow. Can you talk a bit about that collaboration and communication? Yes, a collaboration between the employees on the farm, every employee in the farm that has handled the cows need to be trained to look at the cows and the signs for illness or heat or what else it is. And you have to cooperate with the AI technician, the veterinarian and maybe feeding advisor or breeding advisor. So there's a lot of people who are around the cows so everyone has a part of the good results in reproduction. Well, Kaj and Niels, you've given us your best step-by-step advice on how to maximize the conception rate in the dairy herd. We've looked at before, during and after. I want to take just a bit of time now to talk about some future trends and technologies, because there's a lot going on in the field of artificial insemination, sexed semen, other things. Niels, what are some of the trends that you are looking into in artificial insemination and what farmers should be looking out for in the years to come? I think there's a lot of trends around the world. But one of the trends growing is the use of sexed semen. We have now used it for a couple of years - mostly female sexed semen. But I think the use of male sexed semen will increase a lot when we have incorporated genomic selection for both bulls and also all the females in the barns. We can select the good females to breed and inseminate with sexed female semen, and the other cows that are not current for breeding we can use male beef semen. And I think that this will increase a lot. We'll see more of that for sure. Artificial insemination of cows - it's not a new technology. It actually started back in the 1940s, but, Kaj, from your perspective, what's changed in recent years for instance in terms of selecting the bulls and with that part of it? The genomic selection has had a huge impact on the selection of bulls. We're not anymore waiting for the female offspring of a bull to see if he's a future top bull. We are using the very young bulls starting at eight or ten months so we are seeing a much quicker generation interval if we are going for new trends on health or on the condition of the cows, it will be done very much faster than in the presence so we also have new tools so we can improve the herds. The herd size is also changing all the time from smaller herds to very large herds, and in that way you go from knowing the individual cow to rely on some kind of a management system where you can follow the animals and then pinpoint the ones that have a problem and focus on them instead of the big amount of normal cows. So, together with a faster breeding interval and sexed semen, you can really accelerate the coming cows in your herds. Niels, I read up on something also to do with scanning. What role do you see scanners playing in the future? Well, I think ultrasound scanning is getting more and more used all over the world. The equipment is very useful. It's easy to work with and it's getting better and better. You can have it with you all day. So it's not a big box you'd need in the stable. So, I think ultrasound - we use it a lot now to optimize the diagnosis on the ovaries and to get the little bit higher percent when we pregnancy test cows. We can see if the calves are alive and the heartbeat and all the things. And maybe the most important thing now is that we can use it to find twins. Twins could be a big problem in some high yielding herds. So I think ultrasound is a good tool for us to be a little bit more effective as an AI technician and a veterinarian. What's happening in the area of male fertility - because for years we focused a lot naturally on the female fertility? What tools are available to optimize the semen? Now we can follow the female fertility a little bit more because we can follow the semen from the jump from each bull that jumps and to the laboratory and further to the insemination and to the born calf so we have a bigger chance to optimize the semen and the fertility. Maybe sometimes a bull is not in a good mood and makes a poor jump or it could be in the laboratory that they could optimize and when we use it maybe we can change something in the thawing of the semen or something like that. When a cow doesn't get pregnant what sort of consequences can that have for a farmer? One thing is on a herd level but on a business level as well. Kaj, if you were to put some words to that? Why is getting the insemination right, why is that so important? Your opportunity to optimize your farm would be limited. Sometimes you have the feeling that it's always your favorite cow that's not getting pregnant. That might be right but it also has to do with your favorite cow is also the highest-yielding cow and the most stressed cow. And you want to have offspring from that cow, of course. And if you're not able to that then you have to choose the lower ranking cow in your herd and in the end you might be forced to buy females from outside. And it's again, a stress factor when you're putting in new animals into a herd from a health perspective, but also you change the ranking of the cows. So if you are having a high performance on your reproduction, then you have much better chances to optimize your farm and your herd of females. With our current production systems and focus on efficiency, are you worried about the fertility in the future of the cows? Like from a vet perspective? Yes, we are every day reaching very close to the limit of what a cow is able to do. If we compare it to a sports van, it is really driving fast at the moment. And it is doing it every day, more than 300 days a year. And when it is having a rest, it is a high pregnancy - the last month of pregnancy. So it's not that much of a rest in that perspective. We might start to look in combination of the production and the economy and so sometimes a little bit lower production would give better fertility and even better economy in the end. Because the cow is less sick. It doesn't have to be treated that much. And in the end it would also be a more sustainable cow. And also have a longer lifetime. Wonderful. Well, thanks for joining our BreedCast today. We've looked at how to get the best results with artificial insemination in your herd and we've heard the best tips and future predictions also from our experts; Niels and Kaj. If you would like to learn more, we have a reproduction area at VikingGenetics.com and I would like to thank Niels Haulrik Kristiansen and Kaj Abrahamsen for sharing these insights with us. And I want to thank all of you out there for listening. If you have an idea for a topic in cattle breeding that you'd like us to focus on or questions for our expert guests, please visit the BreedCast.com or write us a message on our Facebook page. My name is Louise Roenn Svane. Please join me for the next BreedCast on how to breed for the best possible hoof health in your dairy herd. Where Kaj Abrahamsen will also be joining us as one of our guests.