Training farmers to perform artificial insemination in sheep

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer/Rancher
Funds awarded in 2013: $19,980.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2015
Region: North Central
State: Ohio
Project Coordinator:

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  • Animals: sheep


  • Animal Production: animal protection and health, livestock breeding

    Proposal summary:

    For a number of reasons, we have decided it would be in the best interest of our shepherds and the outcomes of our Farmer/Rancher SARE Grant (FNC13-901) to make a change in the protocol we will be using this fall. We are proposing to perform posterion cevical artificial insemination rather than the transcervical procedure we originally outlined. This will not change the purpose or substance of the work, but should give better results. Some of our reasons include the retirement from OSU of Dr. Shulaw, one of our advisors, and feedback we have received from other experts in the field.

    Dr. Shulaw modified an instrument that made transcervical AI more successful. He originally planned to train two of the grant participants in the use of this technique. While Dr. Dale Duerr, one of our farmer participants, is also familiar with the technique, we feel the loss of Dr. Shulaw would be significant. In addition, after much communication with several reproductive specialists and Dr. Shulaw, we now feel that posterior cervical AI will be a better option. It is an easier technique to learn and requires less specialized equipment, there is less chance of injury to the animal, and this technique has a reportedly similar success rate. All other aspects of our proposed work will remain the same. Again, this does not affect the purpose or anticipated results of the budget of the original proposal. In fact, we feel it makes the work more relevant to farmers.




    • Don and Anne Brown, Fresno, Ohio – Don and Anne Brown have over 20 years experience with all phases of artificial insemination (AI) in horses including collection, handling and shipment of semen. Don is retired from an agricultural education and extension career; Anne is a nurse. They have a flock of Blue Face Leister sheep. Don will be the lead person who manages and organizes all facets of the project. Anne will be responsible for the work on semen extenders. Both will participate in all training and outreach.
    • Kathy Bielek, Wooster, Ohio – Kathy raises Katahdin sheep. Kathy has been the recipient of four successful SARE grants (including three group grants) to study the genetics of parasite resistance. Kathy works as a program assistant for the Organic Food & Farming Education & Research program at Ohio State University.
    • Kathy will assist Don in project coordination, handle data management and prepare reports. She will participate in all training and outreach.
    • Ginger Davidson, Hanover, Indiana – Ginger is a relatively new Katahdin breeder who utilizes a small flock to assist in mowing the grounds of an airport. She has received training to assist in laparoscopic AI in sheep.
    • She is also involved in the genetic advancement of honey bees and performs microscopic AI on queens. She will use her 20 years of computer experience and a recent marketing career to develop and maintain an outreach blog. Because of her location, she will participate in as much training and outreach as possible.
    • Dale Duerr, DVM, Bolivar, Ohio - Dr. Duerr is both a shepherd and mixed practice veterinarian with a special interest in biosecure methods of improving sheep genetics utilizing AI. He worked closely with Dr. Bill Shulaw (one of our advisors) on a transcervical AI technique. He is a member of the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners. For this project he will train the farmer team members in all aspects of ram management and care, breeding soundness exams (BSE), collection and handling of semen, as well as AI techniques.
    • Craig Zimmerly, DVM, Apple Creek, Ohio – Dr. Zimmerly graduated from veterinary school in 2010. He has been involved in sheep production for many years and has a strong interest in small ruminant veterinary medicine, especially AI and ultrasound. He is a member of American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners. He will assist in training farmer team members as described above and will perform ultrasound on ewes for pregnancy diagnosis.


    • William P. Shulaw, DVM, MS, Extension Veterinarian, Beef/Sheep, Ohio State University - Dr. Shulaw has experience in both cervical and transcervical AI and has done on-farm research and demonstrations of both techniques. He will assist in training team members in all aspects of BSE, collection and handling of semen, and transcervical AI techniques.
    • Jeff McCutcheon, Agricultural Extension Educator, OSU Extension Morrow County – Jeff will help develop economic projections of different AI techniques for farmer adoption. He will also develop outreach materials including factsheets and instructional videos.
    • Troy Cooper, Agricultural Extension Educator, OSU Extension Knox County –Troy has a MA degree in Animal Science- Reproductive Physiology. His Masters research was on semen extenders and their impact on cryopreserved ram semen. He will advise the group on semen handling and semen extenders.



    A farmer-friendly, low cost artificial insemination (AI) alternative is needed to allow large segments of the sheep industry to make genetic progress similar to other livestock industries. AI is currently being used in other livestock species with tremendous success by allowing semen from high quality sires to be disseminated over larger populations of females allowing for faster genetic progress. Other advantages to the use of AI include a decreased biosecurity risk for producers and the ability to eliminate risks associated with transportation stress of herd sires. AI in sheep is inherently more complicated due to difficulty in preserving the ram’s semen and the anatomic complexity of the ewe’s cervix. Although numerous research studies have been conducted on AI in sheep, the application of AI at the farmer level in the U.S. is limited.


    This project originated when four shepherds realized a problem common to many segments of the U.S. sheep industry – the need to enhance and diversify their flock’s genetics without compromising animal health. The Bieleks have spent considerable effort identifying parasite resistant sheep through the help of several SARE grants. They need a biosecure method for introducing new genetics to their closed flock and to share their genetic gains across more flocks.


    The Browns are dedicated to the preservation of rare heritage breeds of sheep and have had difficulty locating unrelated quality rams.


    Ms. Davidson has noted a serious obstacle to small and new flocks: the purchase of a superior ram is expensive, yet critical for expansion and genetic progress.


    Dr. Duerr is interested in cost effectively improving the genetics of his commercial flock, while keeping biosecurity risks at a minimum. Currently, resources for AI are not available in this area and more information on the practical application of AI techniques for the farmer/producer is needed.


    In this two year project, our team plans to show that it is feasible to train shepherds to be proficient in performing transcervical AI, as well as collecting and handling semen. Specific objectives for our team members will be to:

    1) Train and to gain experience in transcervical AI;

    2) Learn practical techniques for semen collection, evaluation, preparation and storage; and

    3) Use and compare the performance of three different semen extenders.


    There are three methods of AI in sheep: laparoscopic (LAI), posterior cervical, and transcervical (TCAI). In the U.S., LAI is the most widely used method. Semen is deposited directly into the uterus through an abdominal incision and conception rates are typically very good. Because LAI is an invasive procedure, it requires the expertise of a trained veterinarian which makes it cost-prohibitive and less available for producers. Posterior cervical AI (depositing the semen at the cervical opening) is a technique that is relatively easy to perform, but is limited to fresh semen since conception rates are generally lower with frozen semen.


    TCAI is performed by inserting a thin pipette through the cervix and depositing the sperm directly into the uterus. It is more difficult to perform than posterior cervical AI, but allows the use of either fresh or frozen semen. Dr. Shulaw (a project advisor), and Dr. Duerr (a project member), have done extensive work with TCAI and have demonstrated success rates similar to that of LAI.


    While the focus of our project is AI, work must begin with the ram, which is half the breeding flock. A breeding soundness exam (BSE) is a relatively simple test to evaluate a ram’s suitability for breeding. This test is of value to every sheep operation and is essential for rams used in AI. It consists of a physical examination, an inspection of the reproductive organs, and an evaluation of a semen sample. Identification of infectious causes of infertility may also be recommended. While a full BSE should be performed by a licensed veterinarian, a well trained farmer can perform parts of the exam, such as the collection and analysis of semen.


    Semen extenders are used to dilute the semen, allowing it to effectively cover more ewes. They are also used to provide nutrients for the sperm and protect against chilling, thus allowing the viability of the semen to be extended. One of the challenges with sheep is that semen is difficult to extend beyond 24 hours which makes shipment of fresh semen for long distances impractical. Recent research with extenders suggests it may be possible to extend the viability of fresh semen for longer than 24 hours which may allow more options for use and eliminate the labor and costs associated with freezing and storage.


    All of our on-farm work will be done on three team members’ farms (Brown, Bielek and Duerr). All results in Years 1 and 2 will be recorded and maintained in a database for future analysis.

    In Year 1, BSE’s will be done in late summer on at least three rams per farm for a total of 12 rams. Any rams identified with questionable or unsatisfactory results will not be used in the project. After passing a physical exam, a semen sample will be collected and examined microscopically to establish sperm volume, concentration, motility and morphology. Each sample will be divided into three portions and stored in a chilled state during extender testing. Three different extenders will be selected based on recent research and advice from our advisors. To assess the percentage of progressively motile sperm cells, morphology and motility evaluations will be performed on collected samples at 12 hour intervals until 20% motility has been reached. The time lapsed comparison of three extender formulas will allow us to identify the best formula for preserving sperm viability for our project.


    Training on TCAIwill begin on the Duerr farm in Year 1, followed by timed AI performed on the Brown and Bielek farms. In September to November, fresh semen will be collected and used to inseminate two groups of eight ewes (16 ewes per farm). The semen will be extended using the extender previously identified as most favorable. All ewes will be at least three years old, have had at least two prior lambings, and be in good health. Ewes will be randomly assigned to one of two farmer inseminators. The same protocol will be repeated in Year 2 with the exception that the Duerr flock will also be included in the study.


    In order to assure that all the ewes are in estrus at the same time, estrous synchronization will be achieved through the use of CIDRs and PG600. CIDR is an intra-vaginally placed device that contains a natural progesterone hormone which is released at a controlled rate into the blood streamto extend the ewe’s current cycle. The CIDR will be inserted by team members into 20 ewes per farm (allowing four extra ewes to be available in case a CIDR comes out prematurely, or the ewe cannot be inseminated transcervically). Injections of PG600 will be administered by a veterinary team member to stimulate ovulation.


    For TCAI, fresh extended semen will be deposited directly into the uterus using a special insemination pipette developed by Drs. Shulaw and Duerr. At approximately 40 days post insemination, Dr. Zimmerly, with team member assistance, will determine conception rates using trans-abdominal ultrasound. A natural service sire will be used for any open (non pregnant) ewes. Records will be maintained of the actual number of conceptions, total lambs born, number of live lambs at birth and at one week of age, as well as birth weights.


    In Year 1, BSE will be performed and semen extenders will be analyzed in August 2013. Work on a blog to share our outcomes and build awareness and interest in our work will be started, with monthly updates. In September 2013, a presentation and BSE demonstration will be given in conjunction with the Ohio Heartland Sheep Improvement Association’s fall workshop. TCAI will be performed from September to November. Forty days later ultrasound will be used to determine conception. Ewes will lamb in the spring of 2014.


    In Year 2, BSEs will be done from July to September, 2014. In September thru November, 2014, we will perform the TCAI. Forty days later ultrasound will be used to determine conception. Ewes will lamb in the spring of 2015.



    The Bieleks have worked with Dr. Shulaw and others on three prior SARE Farmer'/Rancher projects (#FNC04-523; #FNC05-583 and #FNC07-689) and with Dr. Joan Burke, USDA ARS, (#OS09-045) on an On-Farm Research project to identify sheep with greater parasite resistance. A biosecure method is needed to share the genetic gains realized in these SARE projects with others, as well as to introduce new genetics into their closed flock.


    Although numerous research studies have been done on AI and on semen extenders in sheep, little has been done in the U.S. to apply this knowledge at the farmer level or to make it reasonable and cost effective for commercial or small farmers.



    In Year 1, we will partner with the Ohio Heartland Sheep Improvement Association (two of our team are members of OHSIA) to co-sponsor their annual fall educational workshop in October 2013. The focus of the workshop will be breeding and genetics, and will include presentations on biosecurity, the benehts and challenges of BSE and AI, and a BSE demonstration. Also in Year 1, a basic blog will be created as an outreach, educational, and marketing tool for BSEs and AI, and continued through Year 2. Activity and progress on the grant will be included as well as other pertinent information, photos, videos, and links. Our goal is to post entries at least monthly during the course of the project. Information about the blog's presence will be shared through press releases to farm related media and social media sites, and will be sent via emails to acquaintances, organizafions, extension educators, and others.


    In Year 2, we will develop a fact sheet and instructional video about BSE and AI including a description of the procedures and their value to the average shepherd. We will determine cost and economic projections of different forms of AI for the average farmer.


    Members of this proposal are involved in Ohio Sheep Improvement Association, Ohio Ecological Food & Farm Assoc, Katahdin Hair Sheep International, Ohio State University Sustainable Agriculture Network, Indiana Sheep Association, American Sheep Industry Association, andlor the American Association of Small Ruminant Practitioners. Information from this grant will be shared with each of these organizations through print articles and through presentations at annual meetings.



    Our project will be successful if our team members:

    1) show that farmers can successfully perform transcervical AI;

    2) lean appropriate semen handling techniques; and

    3) identify an appropriate semen extender for our AI work.


    The environmental, economic and social impacts will result because:

    1) use of AI will reduce biosecurity risks on farms since rams will not be moved from farm to farm;

    2) the use of parasite resistance genetics will reduce the use of chemical dewormers;

    3) shepherds will learn how to identify subfertile rams;

    4) shepherds will gain improved access to superior genetics;

    5) shepherds will spend less time in the barn during lambing due to better knowledge of lambing due dates; and

    6) shorter lambing time will result in more accurate and economical care and feeding of the ewe flock.

    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.