Sheep artificial insemination to improve lamb marketing in the Northeast

Final Report for ONE13-184

Project Type: Partnership
Funds awarded in 2013: $14,673.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2016
Grant Recipient: Cornell Cooperative Extension
Region: Northeast
State: New York
Project Leader:
Betsy Hodge
Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County
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Project Information

Summary:

Farmers, interns, veterinarians and Cooperative Extension Educators learned about and experienced various aspects of sheep artificial insemination (AI) during the course of our four year grant.  We plan to continue working on our techniques and networking with other groups of producers and university professionals, interested in sheep AI, that we have discovered during this time.  As a result of the grant there is

  • a laboratory set-up at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm in Canton, NY, to continue experimenting in the field. 
  • A set of AI Factsheets have been produced and shared through the SARE website.
  • We have successfully produced lambs from both frozen semen delivered by laparoscopic AI (LAI) and fresh semen delivered by vaginal AI (VAI).  The rams produced have benefited several farmer cooperators.  The offspring of those rams have been disseminated to many farms in Northern New York as well.
  • We mastered ram semen collection and ewe synchronization but still need more information and practice handling semen and performing different vaginal insemination techniques. 
  • The area of semen extenders needs to be researched and practiced.  Our work led us to get in contact with a SARE funded group from Ohio (FNC13-901) is working on this problem and we will cooperate with and benefit from their work.  We also made lasting connection with experts from Canada and Maine who continue to be advisory sources bringing their experience and knowledge from France and Iceland.  Future grants will address bringing someone knowledgeable from one of those countries to the US to share their knowledge with us.

Two workshops were held in Canton, NY at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Learning Farm.  The first was a two day workshop on all types of sheep AI, ewe handling, semen handling. The workshop was held on September 20 and 21, 2013 at ELF with Glen Erickson of New Frontier Genetics instructing and Kirsten Anderson, DVM, monitoring the sheep. Fourteen farmers, 2 Extension Educators, and 4 veterinary technology students attended the workshop.

The second was specifically on how to extend and cool and re-warm semen (John E. Parks, Cornell University, instructing) and was held on January 14, 2015.  Ron Kuck (Extension Educator in Jefferson County), Betsy Hodge (PI and Extension in St. Lawrence County), Molly Parent (Intern from Vermont/SUNY Canton), and Brent Buchanan (Extension St. Lawrence County) attended. 

Producer adoption is low because it took longer for us to learn to do the procedure than expected and it is too complicated for most farms.  However, farmers interested in improvement of production traits are still interested in using AI to create better than average rams to use on their production flocks.  Getting farmers to agree on what is a better ram, how to measure that and then find the rams is part of the challenge.

The long term goal of the project, to improve lamb marketing in the Northeast through more uniformity and better quality lambs is a long way off.  The information we gained doing the activities in this grant is the first step of many to accomplish that goal.  In the future we must learn simple things like counting sperm and more difficult things like the best way to do progeny testing to provide rams worthy of using in an AI program.  The system is in place in European countries and we need to bring knowledgeable people from there to the United States to help us get it in place here.

Introduction:

The problem is that good quality, tested genetics are not available readily in the northeast.  Only one or two farms are currently using artificial insemination and testing/recording their sheep flock production.  Producers are forced to travel out of state and long distances to acquire rams with numbers behind them.  Many are using whatever rams they can find or keeping related rams longer than is desirable. 

Sheep AI is very challenging and the infrastructure does not exist like it does in the cattle industry.  Semen with tested production traits is not readily available.  Most of it comes from Europe, Australia or New Zealand with some available from Canada.  At the time we wrote the grant it was not legal to import semen from Europe, hopefully temporarily. There are other places and producers around the USA that are starting to collect semen but most producers are not set up to take advantage of it.

Producer knowledge of using AI is based on the cattle industry or does not exist at all.  Many farms in the producer group are commercial operations that strive to follow good management practices and make money.  They have expressed a strong interest in AI but there are few places to learn about it and practice it.  Veterinarians in the area are also not experienced in sheep AI and a veterinarian is required to do the laparoscopic AI (in New York State).

The solution to the problem is to educate the producers and demonstrate that sheep AI can be done on several farms around the region.  The hope is that by demonstrating it can be done other producers will become interested after seeing the results and want to try it, too.  We would also like to show the results of AI on growth and uniformity of marketed lambs. 

Currently there are a few farmers in the northeast that use AI about every other year to produce breeding stock to sell.  There is a cost involved that some producers find prohibitive.  Others, like the group that has been meeting regularly, want to make that investment to get the good breeding stock needed to improve their stock and increase their profits.

Eventually we hope, through this project to try the European model of fresh semen AI which is more accessible to more farmers and does not require a veterinarian on site.

Using fresh semen AI opens up the possibility of driving, for example, to Canada, collecting a ram and bringing the semen back, extending it and inserting it in synchronized ewes at home. A ram in another state could also be collected and the same procedure followed using overnight shipping. Producers could also go in together to purchase an expensive tested ram and share him through the use of fresh semen AI without any of the bio-security issues present when actually taking a ram from farm to farm.

During the grant we found a farmer/extension group from Ohio, led by Don and Anne Brown, that also had a SARE farmer grant to try fresh semen AI with sheep (FNC13-901) and we have kept up our communications with them.  We will cooperate with them on future projects.  We also connected with James Weber from the University of Maine who has experience with some of the methods used in Iceland.  Our goal is to share what we know.  A veterinarian from Quebec, Paul Cardyn, who has experience in LAI also helped us before our first workshop and gave us good advice.

The farmer cooperators were mostly commercial producers interested in improving the performance of their flock.  Harold Boomhower, Kris Cole, Pat and Beth Downing, Kendall and Monica Foote, Gene LaMothe, Chet Parsons, Isabel Richards, Carolyn Pierce (DVM) and Bryan Thompson.  Other extension educators were also involved in this project: Ron Kuck, Cornell Cooperative Extension of Jefferson County.  Several interns: Molly Parent (SUNY Canton), Tristin Peterson (SUNY Morrisville), Conor McCabe (Cornell University). Two veterinarians: Carolyn Pierce, Kirsten Peterson

Our Instructors at our two workshops were Glen Erickson (New Frontier Genetics) and John E. Parks from Cornell University.

Project Objectives:

1. AI set up and instructional classes

There will be three training sessions including the training for laparoscopy (LAI), training for fresh semen AI and collecting and extending ram semen.  All activities will be advertised across the region through email lists, webpages, sheep magazines, and contact with key producers.  Our theory is that sheep AI is a viable management technique on our northeast livestock farms.  Our goal is ten farmers, two veterinarians, five Extension personnel, and one college intern to attend each workshop (minimum).  Two farmers will adopt the practice and be successful at producing AI sired offspring the first fall and five additional farmers within 3 years.  Twenty-five farms will purchase breeding stock that has been AI sired within the 3 years.

The first step will be to bring in an instructor to teach laparoscopy artificial insemination (LAI) to producers and the veterinarians.  We have spoken with several possible instructors who are interested in traveling to Northern New York and teaching an all day workshop on sheep AI using Laparoscopy. 

Currently, laparoscopy is the most successful method of artificial insemination in sheep because the cervix in sheep is very convoluted and the semen cannot be deposited in the uterus the way it is in cattle AI.  The frozen semen available now is not viable enough to swim through the cervix so it is inserted through the flank by laparoscopic surgery.  A veterinarian must be present and more equipment and synchronization of the ewes is necessary.

The classes would include synchronizing and preparing ewes for the procedure, equipment needed, how to work with your veterinarian and actual demonstrations of the procedure.  We will open the class to any producers or veterinarians that are interested in attending.  The Extension Learning Farm(ELF) in Canton, NY would be a natural place to hold it because we have a barn classroom and have sheep that can be used for the demonstration aspects of the class.

The second step (and the one we are most excited about) will be to learn more about fresh semen AI (VAI).  VAI is desirable because there are no invasive procedures and the ewes are basically inseminated with a syringe inserted into the vagina.  VAI is challenging because the usual methods for freezing ram semen make the sperm less viable and unable to swim through the cervix.  Therefore, fresh semen is usually used.  In France, for example, they maintain a ram test station similar to our cattle AI organizations.  The rams are progeny tested.  Farmers chose a ram from the book and synchronize their ewes.  When the ewes are in heat, the rams are collected in the morning and the ewes are bred later in the day.

2. Obtaining practical information from European sources

There are also farmers in Europe that are freezing semen and using it successfully to VAI ewes on their natural heats.  We need to find out what that method is and learn to do it.  This would eliminate the need to synchronize the ewes to coincide with the fresh collection of semen.  Many farmers do not want to use the synchronizing hormones if it is not necessary.  Our group has also secured interest from possible instructors for that part of the course.  We also have some contacts in Europe from our past visits and some that have visited the United States.

3. Practice semen collection, preservation and VAI

The third (in reality the second) workshop will be on how to collect and extend ram semen and how to preserve the viability – whether frozen or fresh – for use in vaginal AI would follow.  All of these workshops would be open to all producers and veterinarians. 

The long term goal is to be able to take advantage of a ram located in another part of the country by having him collected and overnight shipped to our lab to be extended and used on synchronized ewes.  Another option would be to work together to purchase a tested ram and keep him at the Extension Learning Farm and collect and use him on cooperating farms.  This model could be used all over the region if groups of sheep farmers want to work together. 

The grant will provide training for collecting and extending the semen with an extender appropriate for fresh semen AI (VAI).  We will also need to learn more about how to detect ewes in heat and also how to synchronize them better.  Some European producers have figured out a way to keep frozen semen viable enough to do VAI allowing them to do VAI on natural heats rather than synchronizing the ewes to be bred.

4. Measurable outcomes

Progress will be measured by farmer participation in the workshops initially.  Another measure will be how many go on to try it on their farms within 16 months and how many intend to try it within 3 years.  Another measure will be how many farms buy breeding stock that has been AI sired within 3 years.   A pre and post test will be given at the workshops and a survey or their intent will also be filled out.  Follow up will be by phone contact.

Cooperators

Click linked name(s) to expand

Research

Materials and methods:

I. AI set up and instructional classes

  • Our committee of farmers and veterinarians met three times over the spring and summer of 2013 to decide what exactly we wanted to get out of the sheep AI workshop and who should be the instructor. It was concluded that one meeting that includes both laparoscopy (LAI) and fresh semen (VAI) would be better than trying to run two workshops. We chose the dates of September 20 and 21, 2013.
  • Intern was hired – Tristan Peterson, student from SUNY Morrisville with sheep experience. Intern also assisted with preliminary research. Intern prepared the lab area by cleaning and painting.
  • Lined up instructor, Glen Erickson of New Frontier Genetics
  • Worked with instructor to purchase lab equipment
  • Sheep were synchronized in preparation for the workshop and semen was ordered and stored.
  • Held the workshop at ELF with 14 farmers from NY, ME, and VT. Students from the local college (4) , Extension Educators from NY (2) and veterinarians (1) also participated. There were several other farmers that were interested in the program but could not make it that day. One farmer from Saskatchewan watched the first day over the internet.
  • Covered LAI the first day and VAI the second day. Inseminated 8 sheep at the ELF

The group as a whole learned a lot about the logistics of sheep AI. Even ordering semen and shipping it was more challenging than expected. Synchronizing the sheep takes more planning than people realized as well. At the last minute we were able to borrow a nice cradle for the sheep LAI. Some farmers realized that they would not want to do LAI and would like to pursue VAI. We planned to experiment with collecting rams and shipping the semen to see if we can get viable semen shipped to a farm within 24 hours.

  • Nine lambs were born as a result of the sheep AI workshop and those genetics are being shared among some of the cooperating farms for now.  Articles about sheep AI and the lambs that were born were shared in the 6 county newsletters and talked about at the Sheep and Goat Week classes.
  • Other farmers volunteered to let us try inseminating their ewes with fresh semen when we get better at collecting and extending fresh semen.
  • Several farmers (3) expressed an interest in trying to coordinate bringing in someone to do laparoscopic AI in the area which would help keep all of our costs down. Several farms could share the travel costs and veterinarian costs. A local veterinarian is interested in doing LAI or being the attending veterinarian after participating in our workshop. One challenge is the availability of semen from Europe. We are working on semen from New Zealand and Australia and maybe Canada.
  • Through another grant we have had a dummy ewe constructed to aid in collection of fresh semen. The dummy ewe holds the artificial vagina. We will use the ewe dummy in our fresh semen AI collecting and extending workshop. We had a challenge getting the rams to use the dummy.  We have tried several types of pheromone spray to help stimulate the ram to use the dummy.  We tried Boer spray and deer in heat urine but the thing that worked best was to collect urine from a goat in heat.  Goats show their heat behavior much more strongly than a ewe and even a towel rubbed all over the rump of the goat in heat would excite the rams.  We tried collecting urine from ewes in heat without success.  We also tried putting a ewe in heat next to the dummy and then pushing the ram over onto the dummy.  This approach was somewhat successful but at that point it is just as easy to reach underneath and collect the ram manually with an artificial vagina.

In regards to running training for sheep artificial insemination we would like to emphasize it is important to have synchronizing items, sheep, semen, semen shipping vessels, semen storage tanks, sheep handling equipment (pens, AI cradle, leadlines, etc), a willing veterinarian, semen handling equipment and a good place to do it.  Planning ahead is imperative because semen shipping and ewe synchronizing are very time sensitive.

2. Obtaining practical information from European sources

We found this information very hard to gather. Our contacts in France and Norway did not lead us to any fruitful activities.  We have sited some of the information in the sources in the factsheets.  In 2017 we found James Weber at U. Maine who is interested in this method and has visited Iceland and observed their techniques.

3. Practice semen collection, preservation and VAI

  • We quickly realized we needed more training in collecting and extending semen. We now have the equipment but needed help in the best ways to use it.
  • Several articles were written and used in the monthly Extension Farm News magazines across northern New York. The articles described what we learned in the first workshop and described the second workshop.
  • Our semen handling workshop was successfully held on January 14, 2015 with John Parks from Cornell instructing. Ron Kuck (Ext. in Jefferson County), Betsy Hodge (PI and Extension in St. Lawrence County), Molly Parent (Intern from SUNY Canton), Brent Buchanan (Extension St. Lawrence County) attended.  Two producers were scheduled to attend but the extra cold weather caused them to stay home.  Topics included collection, extension, cooling and warming semen.
  • We were able to collect semen and learn about extending, cooling and warming semen. The extended, cooled semen was kept for 2 more days.  One batch had live, vigorous semen  2 days after the workshop the other did not.
  • Over the summer (2015) our Cornell intern (Conor McCabe) and Betsy Hodge practiced collecting the rams on the premises. We became successful at collecting the rams if we had a ewe in good standing heat (natural or induced).  Some rams were easier to collect than others.
  • Rather than experiment on other producer’s flocks, we synchronized 8 ewes from the Extension Learning Farm flock and collected our rams, extended the semen and vaginally inseminated them on November 13th,2015. It was out first attempt without and instructor nearby and it informed us of the questions we needed to ask and the other equipment we needed to make the process go more smoothly.
  • One set of triplets were born to a ewe bred by vaginal artificial insemination out of 6 possible. 2 ewes were disqualified for other reasons.
  • In late 2016, 6 more ewes were bred by VAI at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Farm and 2 at Double-H Sheep Company about 5 miles away. Ewes were synchronized ahead of time, rams collected, semen extended and used.  Results will be known April 2017

After noticing that we were constantly looking through long articles for a few pieces of information we decided one thing that we could do to contribute to the sheep artificial insemination (AI) information would be to write a set of fact sheets that contain concise information in an organized format as well as more pictures. 

  • Eleven Fact sheets were sent to several people for feedback and are being finalized. (See project product area)
Research results and discussion:

4. Measurable outcomes

  • Interest among producers is there.
  • Adoption is slow among producers due to the lack of veterinarians willing to do the procedure and the rules that it has to be a veterinarian (LAI)
  • Adoption is slow due to the lack of semen from production tested rams
  • Adoption is slow due to the lack of production tested rams in this country.
  • Adoption is slow due to the cost of equipment to do Laparoscopy and the lack of information about vaginal AI.
  • The educators involved have learned a great deal and have answered many questions on the phone and in emails from around the country.

If successful we will continue to try to purchase a ram that could be housed at the Extension Learning Farm and used for fresh semen AI. The ram could be collected and the semen shipped or delivered to farms where the ewes have been synchronized. So far, I don’t think farmers have been willing to contribute to a ram even though we have the funds to transport one to the area. Once we have established we can do the VAI it will be easier to convince farmers to go in on a ram.

  • Extension Learning Farm purchase an AI bred ram that originated from the flock of Melanie Barkley in Pennsylvania.  He was proven on one of our cooperator’s farms. He will be used for further AI work.  The group of farmers that was originally going to purchase some rams together did not feel like we were ready to provide reliable AI service yet and therefore decided to let Extension purchase the ram to continue perfecting out techniques.
Research conclusions:

The success or failure of our attempts at VAI will determine our success at recruiting farmers to try VAI on their flocks in the future.  There are farmers interested in VAI and others interested in cooperating to bring in a technician to work with their veterinarian to do LAI.  The laboratory is set up and the work will continue.

A set of factsheets have been developed that includes pictures and basic instructions for doing AI and a list of useful resources.  Farmers interested in practical information about sheep AI will be able to use the factsheets to help make decisions about whether to use AI in their flock or not.

Experiences over the past four years and money from another grant have helped us further develop the laboratory set-up for sheep AI.  Our next project needs to be a progeny testing system for lambs to help create worthy sires to use for AI.

We are a long way from impacting the consistency of lambs marketed in the northeast but we are hopeful that the long term vision will be reached step by step.

The awareness of sheep artificial insemination possibilities was raised among producers who read articles and were present at our sheep and goat meetings offered in the spring and fall.

Rams produced at the first AI workshop were used on 5 different sheep farms and offspring from those rams were sold to 12 different farms influencing the genetics of flocks in the area.  Several farmers commented that the lambs produced were superior to the lambs they had been raising in growth,  body type and vigor.

Another impact of the program was to connect to other producer groups interested in studying sheep vaginal artificial insemination.  We currently share information now and maintain an email list of farmers and researchers and veterinarians that have made inquiries or shared their experiences.

Participation Summary

Education & Outreach Activities and Participation Summary

Participation Summary

Education/outreach description:

The AI lambs that were born were featured in our Farm News and pictures were distributed on the email list, social media and in the NNY Regional Farm Newspapers. Articles about the workshop were also included in the publicity.

Betsy Hodge and Ron Kuck talked about the sheep AI program with producers at out Sheep and Goat Week programs over the last four years with the most information going out in 2014.

The information has not been presented at the Cornell Sheep and Goat Symposium due to it being postponed in the year we would have presented.  We hope to present out information in the future.

The set of AI Factsheets will be published through SARE and available to the public on our Cornell Cooperative Extension of St. Lawrence County website.  The factsheets will summarize information we collected over the four years, list resources, and show pictures of the actual procedures we performed.

Project Outcomes

Project outcomes:

Farmer Adoption

Farmers’ adoption of artificial insemination on their own farms is not happening yet.  However, many were impressed with the results of our artificial insemination offspring and now look for rams with proven genetics or AI sires from countries which value the production traits they are looking for.

We have plans to collect a ram at a farm in the neighboring county and bring the extended semen home and inseminate synchronized ewes at a local farm next fall (2017).

Several farmers are hoping to work together to have LAI done on their farms.  Because our skills at VAI is not proficient yet, we have not encouraged farmer adoption of VAI.  We talk about the possibilities for the future, and hope to continue our practices at the Extension Learning Farm and with anyone else that wants to experiment.

Assessment of Project Approach and Areas of Further Study:

Areas needing additional study

There are many areas of additional study that need to take place to make sheep artificial insemination a viable program.  The first is to have rams that are proven for the production traits we desire.  One avenue is to pursue the National Sheep Improvement Program (NSIP).  Another is to do real progeny testing at a test station similar to that done in France.  Increasing use of tools like ultra-sounding could aid in selection  The study of the sheep genome offers some possibilities for finding great rams without progeny testing someday.

Developing pheromones for ram stimulation would aid in collection and may even exist in other parts of the world.

One of the most obvious things we could do is to bring one or more experts to the USA from other places in the world where they are already practicing fresh semen AI as part of their sheep improvement programs and learn from them.  It doesn’t make much sense to re-invent the wheel.  I would recommend France, Iceland or Norway from the research we have done.  We made an effort to establish email contacts overseas to get answers to some of out collection and semen handling questions without success.

It would be worthwhile to bring those of us working on sheep artificial insemination, especially vaginal AI in the USA,  to one location to share information.  We paln to organize a conference call this year.  We try something different every time we attempt fresh semen vaginal AI but haven’t found the perfect combination.  Perhaps sharing our experiences would increase success for all of us.

 

Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.