On farm AI – the pitfalls -

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The earliest application of AI in pigs was a simple farm-based system. Semen was collected from a boar, the ejaculate divided into doses (with or without prior quality evaluation and extension) and immediately inseminated into sows on the same farm.
Results were variable, but for the most part, this facilitated more widespread use of a particular sire than would be possible through natural mating. Over the last 50 years, the AI process has been the subject of ongoing research and development, and systems now range from on-farm collection, processing and insemination through to the purchase of semen doses from an external source. Purchasing semen can offer benefits in terms of access to the highest calibre of AI boars, and also the latest in technological developments. There are many operations however, still able to exploit the advantages of home-produced semen, which is subject neither to disease restrictions nor transport problems. There are pitfalls to avoid however, if on-farm AI is to deliver the desired benefits.

As an old pig farmer from Iowa once said: “AI – it’s easy to do, easy to screw up”. While there is very little about AI that is difficult, the system consists of a whole series of steps, each of which is important, and each of which must be carried out properly in order to succeed. A great deal of money is invested in a pig breeding operation, and AI will have a significant impact on its profitability. The key to achieving high levels of performance with AI is to ensure the delivery of “good quality semen into the right place at the right time”. When the semen doses are prepared on the farm, everything depends upon those responsible for the care of the AI boars, semen collection and
processing of the insemination doses. Results can be excellent, but when there is a problem (e.g. a bad batch of extender, a new brand of glove with spermicidal properties, or perhaps simply a staff member having a bad day), it can be a major problem, often resulting in large numbers of returns from a particular day. An entire ejaculate or even a batch of pooled ejaculates may be damaged, possibly in a way not
apparent when looking down the microscope in a routine check – and the first indication of a problem is 21 days later.

Successful AI is all about getting it right each and every time – about quality control and consistency, standardisation of excellent practice, record-keeping and accountability. If you are not prepared to meet these requirements, to rise to the challenges presented, you will never reap the benefits of AI; you will only experience the pitfalls. The purpose of this paper is to highlight those pitfalls.

Staffing the stud

Finding staff of the right calibre and aptitude is key to successful on-farm AI. You must identify people who are interested in the details, the minutiae of the system, and those determined to maintain high standards. They must take ownership of the process and be accountable for the results. Staff must have proper training, which should be standardised to ensure that everyone is working in the same way, towards the same goals. Remember that a member of staff may leave, or be off work for an extended period of time through illness. What will you do then? Make sure there is more than one person capable of running the AI system, even if you have nominated an “AI
champion” to spearhead application of the technology. Send staff to advanced further training, to conferences, and even to other AI studs if possible. Partnering with another stud can be a great way of expanding horizons for all staff members, as well as establishing contingency plans of mutual benefit.

Depending on the scale of the operation, you may have a totally different team of people collecting and processing the semen, to those responsible for heat detection and serving the sows. This is fine, as you should be looking for those ideally suited to each
job, but make sure that there is a good team approach. Stud staff should have experience of the breeding barn so that they understand the importance of maintaining high standards of semen quality and the impact of making mistakes in the laboratory.
Breeding barn staff should be given basic training in semen collection and processing so that they can appreciate the level of attention to detail demanded by work on the stud.

Be warned – work on an AI stud by nature is extremely routine, and can be boring, even though it is of great importance. Make sure that staff stay keen and interested by enabling them to update their skills, keep up with the literature, share ideas, and run simple trials. Keeping staff focussed will increase the chance of maintaining job satisfaction and reduce staff turnover rates. A stable team should never be undervalued.

The boars
Where sperm count is measured using a photometer or haemocytometer, one ejaculate can produce an average of 20 or more insemination doses. Following through with the maths on this, it is theoretically possibly for 3 boars to provide sufficient semen for a
500 sow unit! While the maths may fit, the reality is not quite as simple as this, as ejaculate quality will vary, as will the number of sows to serve each day. Boars cannot be worked for AI every day of the week. Where parent gilts are home-produced, it will be necessary to maintain more than one line of boars. Young boars produce less semen doses than older, more mature boars. There are many reasons why smaller units have to operate with a different boar:sow ratio than larger units even thought they may all be using on-farm AI. It is essential that anyone contemplating setting up an on-farm AI programme understands these issues as they plan the size of the AI stud, incorporating contingencies for any problems which may arise. Once the unit is dependent upon on-farm AI, it will be a major problem if semen production is interrupted in any way.

Optimising efficiency
Many studs express stud efficiency in terms of the number of doses of semen produced per boar place per unit of time (e.g. per year). This takes no account of the empty boar places on the stud, nor the boar places taken up with boars that are not working.
Training boars in isolation will identify boars that are not working, or whose semen quality is unacceptable. This avoids bringing worthless boars onto the main stud, thus taking up a valuable place.

It is all too easy for the users of home-produced semen to disregard its cost and its value. As semen is always available, wastage seems of little importance, and inefficiencies can creep into the system. Do not let this happen. There is a cost attached to producing a dose of semen. Make sure that everyone understands the costs involved. Monitor the level of semen wastage, expressing stud efficiency in terms of “the number of doses of semen used per boar place per unit of time”.

Quality control and consistency
Successful on-farm AI is all about getting it right each and every time. Staff should follow a manual or “AI Blueprint”, in which each step is detailed to ensure standardisation and consistency. Not only does this support achievement of the highest standards, but it also aids with trouble-shooting should problems arise. Ideally, the AI Blueprint will be written by the staff themselves, with guidance as necessary from
management. The system should be described in great detail, and a recording system established for checking that each step has been completed. There will be times when a procedure needs to be altered, in line with a new development or a change of consumable item (e.g. extender). To accommodate this within a quality assurance framework, an amendment procedure should also be in place.

AI supplies
Sperm cells are very sensitive, and can be damaged by a range of external factors (e.g. temperature, ultra violet light, hypo-osmotic and hyper-osmotic solutions, and certain chemicals e.g. formalin). For this reason, all items that come into direct or indirect contact with the ejaculates must be guaranteed “non-spermicidal”. It is of great importance to purchase such items only from a reputable AI equipment supplier – a company that understands the sensitivity of sperm cells and the importance of quality control. The most important items to consider are the gloves used for semen collection, filters and receptacles (bags, cups), semen extender, purified water (if purchased), dispensing tubing, and the insemination bottle, tube or bag. Once you have chosen your preferred suppliers, regard them as partners in the operation, and work closely with them to ensure that high standards are maintained. Do not change suppliers often, and do not make purchase decisions only on the basis of price.

Contingency planning
Once an operation is dependant on AI, the prospect of interruption of semen supply becomes very serious indeed. It is essential that you detail a contingency plan to cope with all eventualities e.g. staff leaving, problems with extender deliveries, water quality deterioration, sickness in the boar stud, or a sudden drop in semen quality. You may choose to purchase semen from a commercial stud under these circumstances. If this is your plan, identify the appropriate stud (in terms of health status, delivery arrangements, genetics and price) before you need to turn to them for help. You may choose to work in partnership with another stud, within or outside of your own system. If you opt for this type of contingency plan, make sure that you are completely satisfied with the partner stud’s health status and quality control programme. Check out the semen extender used, the number of sperm per dose, and the evaluation procedures in place. Contingency plans are only used in an emergency – and in an emergency there simply is no time to discuss such matters in any detail.

Stay ahead
Keeping staff updated will ensure that new innovations can be applied at the earliest opportunity, thus maintaining a competitive edge. While it is rarely appropriate for an on-farm AI stud to operate its own programme of research and development, it is important that you know what improvements are being made in the field, particularly with regards to increasing efficiency and enhancing performance. If you never look beyond your own farm gate, you could easily miss out on such improvements. Allow your AI champion to keep up with the literature, and to maintain open lines of communication with research departments and your AI equipment and consumable suppliers. You do not need to be the first to try every new development, but you can certainly make sure you are not the last either!

Further reading
* Almond,G, Britt,J, Flowers,B, Glossop,C, Levis, D, Morrow,M, and See,T
(1998). The Swine AI Book, 2nd Edition, Ed. Ruth Cronje, North Carolina
State University.
* Glossop, CE (1998). AI in pigs: production of quality-assured, healthy
semen. In Practice, 20, (4), 182-188
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