Tips on what you might need to equip your stallion breeding station, from microscopes to AVs
The new terminology has come into being as artificial insemination (AI) with cooled and frozen semen has become commonplace in most all breeds except the Thoroughbred. As AI and embryo transfer have become more sophisticated, so has the equipment that veterinarians and breeding technicians employ.
There are many advantages to artificial insemination. The mare often doesn't have to be transported to the stallion. Rather, the stallion's semen is shipped to her. Generally speaking, it is easier to prevent and control reproductive diseases with artificial insemination as opposed to live cover. Frozen semen makes it possible to preserve semen for long periods of time and to breed your mare to a stallion residing in a foreign land, if you so desire.
At the outset, it would seem that breeding with artificial insemination would be cheaper than sending a mare to a stallion for live cover. That isn't necessarily so, says Jos Mottershead of Wynnewood, Okla., who, with his wife, Kathy St. Martin, operate a stallion and mare breeding station. While it is probably less expensive to breed a mare through transported semen, the initial costs involved in setting up a breeding station are higher.
In addition to operating their breeding facility, Mottershead and St. Martin also travel across the country conducting clinics on reproduction, as well as collecting and freezing semen for clients. One reason AI costs are higher in the beginning is the equipment required.
You can get started on a basic scale for $1,000 to $3,000, but Mottershead estimates that the value of their equipment exceeds $30,000. He says many stallion stations might have an investment that surpasses $50,000 depending on the level of sophisticated equipment employed.
Each stallion at the Mottershead and St. Martin facility has his own individual paddock that is at least one-third of an acre in size. The stallions spend 24 hours per day in the paddocks and are only brought inside when it is time to collect their semen. Each paddock is separated from another by 15 feet of free space to minimize antagonistic behavior. A stallion's neighbor is selected for compatibility. For example, if two stallions don't get along, their paddocks are far apart.
Knowledge of stallion handling is important and is considered a tool in the couple's business. Because they handle stallions without excess negative reinforcement (punishment), they are known for being able to collect stallions that have been problem horses.
Setup Costs for AI
So, what type of equipment is involved in establishing an artificial insemination program, and at what cost?
While Mottershead estimates it would cost about $2,000 to set up a basic AI laboratory, St. Martin says it likely could be done for about $1,000 if one purchases used equipment on eBay and is willing to expend a bit more time and energy in the lab. At that minimal cost, building one's own mounting dummy or using a "jump mare" for collecting semen would be a necessity. They discuss equipment needs below.
This is a basic piece of equipment. There are four artificial vagina (AV) models commonly used in the United States today. Mottershead identifies them and provides what he considers strong points for each:
Colorado-style This AV retains water temperature longer in cold weather; is more durable under extreme use; its liner is cheaper to replace when worn or damaged; and it allows most stallions to ejaculate well clear of the heated liner, thereby avoiding sperm damage by heat shock.
Missouri This model AV is cheaper to purchase (than other models) initially; is lighter and, therefore, easier to handle when filled with water; will allow for the addition of air to make the liner tighter; and allows a less-direct manual stimulation of the penis, which can be preferable to some stallions.
French (INRA Model) This lightweight AV can be held with one hand; has two handles, making it easy to manage; holds marginally more water than the Missouri or Roanoke (see below) models, but not as much as the Colorado, making it lighter, while maintaining good retention properties; the removable/adjustable latex hood enables use of a single AV for different-sized stallions; the latex hood also allows for less-direct manual stimulation of the glans of the penis during collection; and the liner is inexpensive to replace when worn or damaged.
Roanoke This AV is notably lightweight and can be held with one hand; allows for great bell pressure on glans penis, which is preferred by some stallions; its shortness permits manual stimulation of the penis' upper shaft at the sensitive pressure point close to the preputial ring; and a "split-off" pressure relief valve automatically adjusts water pressure to the required level.
The Colorado AV, Mottershead says, costs about $500, and the French model costs about the same. "We always recommend having a backup water bladder, and, of course, disposable liners," St. Martin says, "which might push the total cost of the French model a little higher."
Which do they prefer? "The French model, hands down," says St. Martin. She says she likes the convenient size and weight, while it still provides rigidity and good heat-retention properties.
A breeding phantom, they say, can be purchased for as low as $1,000 to as high as $3,000 for basic mounts. However, they add, one can build a basic model for as little as $100--if materials are available--by using a power pole and old mattresses. In fact they have included instructions on how to build a phantom dummy on their Web site at: www.equine-reproduction.com/articles/phantomplans.htm.
A commercial breeding phantom should last seven years at a minimum, according to Mottershead. The cover might get ripped sooner, he says, but repair can be made easily and inexpensively.
A jump mare is always an option, but there are inherent risks when using a live animal during the collection process.
One of the most valuable pieces of equipment at a breeding station is ultrasound. It can be used to determine ovulation and pregnancy at very early stages. St. Martin didn't include ultrasound when she discussed the cost of establishing an inexpensive breeding laboratory.
New ultrasound units, she says, will range from about $8,500 to about $16,000 for the smaller, more portable units. The good news, she says, is that used ultrasound equipment is available. She says you can often find a used ultrasound for as little as $4,000 to $5,000.
An essential piece of equipment in the AI breeding shed is a microscope that is used to examine sperm health. Mottershead says a new phase-contrast microscope will be in the $3,000 range. However, a good bright-field microscope (which produces a dark image against a brighter background) is adequate for basic semen analysis work and is much cheaper.
St Martin explains her bargain hunting: "You can pick up an excellent-quality used bright-field microscope on eBay for as little as $100. We do recommend that it has a mechanical stage and that the optics and objectives give you a minimum of 100x and 400x to be able to evaluate semen sufficiently. If you watch eBay and are patient, you can often pick up a phase contrast microscope for a fraction of the cost of a new microscope. We recommend when purchasing a used microscope that it be a name brand, as the optics and mechanics will usually be superior."
A variety of semen-counting devices are available, Mottershead says, with the prices also varying considerably. The cheapest, but also the most time- consuming, he says, is the hemacytometer at approximately $120. Among the mechanical machines available are the Densimeter at about $2,700; Exodus Breeders' Quick Check at $1,495; IMV Accuread at $1,900; spectrophotometer, from $1,000 to $1,500; and DVM Rapid Test at about $795.
"As a rule of thumb," Mottershead says, "the more bells and whistles the sperm counter has, the more expensive it will be." Many other units also are on the market.
St. Martin says, "There is no perfect sperm counter. They work by shooting light through the sample and are calibrated to determine concentration accordingly. Unfortunately, there are things that can have an impact on the final count. If the stallion's penis isn't cleaned sufficiently, dirt, debris, and smegma might be read as sperm by the counter and give a false reading."
She says the hemacytometer is the most accurate, but it can be slow to use.
A standard bearer in the shipping container world has been Equitainer, which, St. Martin says, can be purchased for $219. Disposable shippers also are available and average about $30 each, she says.
She cautions, "We strongly recommend that a stallion owner ensures that his or her stallion ships adequately in a disposable shipper and they should not be used during temperature extremes. Remember that with FedEx, most shipments go through its hub in Tennessee. If you are shipping from places like Tucson, Ariz., or Ocala, Fla., in the heat of the summer, chances are that the disposable container is not going to be able to keep the semen at the optimal temperature. The same would be true for shipping early in the year in cold climates. We have received semen that had been shipped in a disposable container, and the semen arrived in a frozen state due to frigid temperatures. Needless to say, it didn't get anything pregnant."
A number of other items are needed in the breeding laboratory. Included are insemination pipettes, sterile gloves, a thermometer, incubator or water bath, microscope slides, a lubricant for the AV liners (St. Martin says mineral oil works very well as long as one is using a disposable plastic liner in the AV); the list goes on. And, if the laboratory is highly sophisticated, a centrifuge that can reduce the semen volume and increase concentration will be useful.
Extender to be mixed with the semen is an important element in the AI process. There are some new extenders on the market, says St. Martin. One of them is INRA 96, which has some special qualities that make it attractive. "It can be used at a 1:1 ratio, which can be beneficial with stallions with low concentration. It's pretty well accepted that for optimal shipping, semen should be shipped at a final concentration of 25 to 50 million sperm per milliliter, and it is preferred that it be extended at least three parts extender to one part semen. Obviously, if you have a stallion with an initial concentration below 100 million/mL, it is going to be difficult to extend it that much and maintain sperm viability when shipped. INRA 96 is a possible option on some of those stallions."
St. Martin says another new extender --one developed in Europe--is VMDZ.
"Of course, the old standby Kenney extender with its dual-sugar variations, with a variety of antibiotics, is still a good extender to use with many stallions," she says. "Determining which antibiotic and extender work best with each individual stallion is always a good idea and should be done annually, as some stallions may ship well in a certain extender one year, but might not do so well the next year. No one extender that going to work well for all stallions."
It is not cheap to outfit a breeding operation, but there are cost-saving techniques, such as purchasing used equipment, that small breeders can use. Persons seeking to do artificial insemination should be skilled in stallion collecting, handling, and breeding processes or have a veterinarian handle those duties.
About the Author
Les Sellnow is a free-lance writer based near Riverton, Wyo. He specializes in articles on equine research, and operates a ranch where he raises horses and livestock. He has authored several fiction and non-fiction books, including Understanding Equine Lameness and Understanding The Young Horse, published by Eclipse Press and available at www.exclusivelyequine.com or by calling 800/582-5604.
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