AI and ET are still not widely used in small ruminant production
Over the last five years, artificial insemination and embryo transfer have changed the genetic future of sheep and goats. While the practice has rapidly increased the rate of genetic improvement, it is not a standard practice across the industry, and each producer should consider the potential advantages and costs of their individual approach.
“Because of the available genetic pool over the last five years, sheep and goats have not only improved, but the number of really good animals has increased,” said Brian Kutz, assistant teaching professor of animal science and livestock judging team coach at the University of Arkansas.
Historically when breeding sheep and goats, producers were limited in genetic evolution to the animals they had at home. If a producer wanted a specific quality in their offspring, they had to purchase a male and a female that had that quality to have a chance of breeding the quality into their herd.
Producers’ only option for improving genetic quality in their herd was the old-fashion process of picking a female sheep or goat from their barn with the best qualities and breeding it with a male sheep or goat from their barn with the best qualities. Today that is no longer the case.
“The advantage of AI and embryo transfer is that producers can now utilize genetics from all over and can replicate the mating process with embryo transfer,” said Kutz. “Producers are not limited to just one or two purchased sires any longer.”
The process of artificially inseminating and transferring embryos is different for sheep and goats than for cattle or hogs. Kutz described how the reproductive tract in small ruminants is not conducive to artificial insemination. Their reproductive tract requires artificial insemination to be done surgically for sheep and goats.
According to the Merck Veterinary Manual, embryo transfers in small ruminants are a fraction of those recorded for cattle. Between commercial and market factors limiting the production of embryos and the cost of the surgical process, AI and embryo transfer isn’t accessible to all sheep and goat producers.
While AI and embryo transfer speed up the improvement of genetics, it comes at a high cost due to the complexity of the surgical process. The cost of the process can reach as high as $350 per ewe/doe depending on semen costs.
The University of Oregon Extension Service Veterinarian Charles Estill compared the pros and cons of artificial insemination of goats with consideration to the inputs and outputs of the process and its subsequent results.
Estill recognized that an advantage of the process is that it reduces or eliminates the need for maintaining bucks in a herd. No bucks mean reduced input costs and output of resources like time, space and energy. He also noted the increase in the rate of genetic improvement, reduction of disease transmission, and easy transport of genetics.
Some of the disadvantages Dr. Estill listed were the high costs of equipment and increased skilled labor required for the process. Due to the relative newness of the process, he added, there is a lack of standard protocol for packaging and quality control.
If a producer is considering trying artificial insemination, they should look for does that are in good health, are good mothers, are disease free, have a BCS of 2.5 to 3 and should have tailored nutrition that is improved for two to five weeks pre-breeding.
It is important to note that AI success can depend on many variables, including fresh vs. frozen semen, number and timing of insemination, insemination method, quality and quantity of semen, semen handling practices and management of animals’ pre-insemination.