The Ins and Outs of Artificial Insemination

Within the last two years, there has been a significant growth in interest and use of artificial insemination (AI) in the white-tailed deer farming industry. Why the interest?

There are good reasons why the use of AI has increased:

  1. Access to genetics from superior bucks – the current market pays a premium for high scoring B&C bucks. The fastest way to improve your herd genetics is to breed with high scoring bucks.
  2. Greater convenience and fewer obstacles in using semen – breeding your does naturally with the best bucks is not always possible. There are a host of regulatory and logistical problems to overcome. Using semen from superior bucks makes breeding much easier.
  3. Improved technologies and knowledge – we now have individuals and companies that are experienced in both extracting semen and doing artificial insemination. Processing and storage technologies and facilities have improved and are accessible to most deer farmers. Workshops are being offered by experts so that you can learn how to do the insemination yourself (see Section 6 below).
  4. Economic and revenue reasons – selling semen at $500 to $1,000 per straw is an attractive way to significantly increase your deer farming revenues and profits.

Artificial insemination started in the deer industry with the freezing of elk semen in 1986. It came about due to pressures to improve certain traits in the animals, e.g., velvet production.

White-tailed bucks are usually darted to draw the semen. This can be done every 7 or 8 days for up to 6 to 7 times until as late as mid February. However, great care must be taken as the darting is stressful and hard on the bucks. Some 20 to 180 straws (average 70) of semen can be obtained from yearlings, and 70 to 275 straws (average 125) from adult bucks.

The semen must be collected, processed, handled and stored properly. If frozen under proper conditions, it will last indefinitely.

The does are inseminated using the semen during the breeding season. The prime time is November 15 to December 10. The does can either be held in a deer handler, or tranquilized. The doe must be in heat. Estrous can either be chemically induced, or the doe is watched until she comes into heat naturally. One straw of semen is usually sufficient.

Despite its advantages, there are certain risks associated with the use of AI, both for the sellers and buyers. For producers of the semen, the risks are:

  1. Bucks may die from being darted for semen extraction. I personally know of at least 4 cases of where quality bucks have died. Since semen is typically drawn from your best bucks, this could be a significant loss.
  2. The economic potential may be illusionary. Based on the data provided above, it should be possible to obtain up to 1,500 straws (250 x 6) from one adult buck. At a $1,000 per straw, this could potentially result in $1.5 million in revenues – not bad! However, if we take that one step further and say that 500 deer farmers are selling 1,500 straws of deer semen, this makes for a supply of 750,000 straws of white-tailed deer semen. Now, we all know that there are nowhere near that many farmed white-tailed does in all of North America!
  3. A potential loss of credibility and consumer confidence. There is no guarantee that the off-spring of your best buck will inherit his traits. As indicated in last month’s Digest, the probability that some traits will be passed on is quite low. All your buyers may not understand this and may accuse you of misrepresentation or false advertising, and refuse to do any more business with you.
  4. There will be significant costs associated with hiring the people and facilities to extract, process, store and deliver the semen.

If you are a buyer of semen, here are the risks you face.

  1. There is no guarantee that the traits will be passed by the buck to the offspring. Even worse, the industry has not established any EPD (Expected Progeny Differences) so there are no objective measures of the buck’s ability to pass on his traits.
  2. According to Dr. James Kroll, the conception rate for AI is in the range of 38% to 68%. You could be wasting some pretty expensive semen.
  3. Stress affects conception rate; does under stress can lower conception rate to as low as 20%. Tranquilized does have better conception rates – up to 65%. Bottle-fed does also suffer less stress from handling.
  4. Chemical or drug synchronization does not work very well as there is great variation in estrous times. If you are going to catch does in their natural cycle, this will take a lot of careful observation and work.
  5. The quality of semen is very difficult to measure; motility does not necessarily equal fertility. It is only one measure.
  6. How can you be sure that the buck’s semen you purchased is the one you have received? You can’t – unless you have DNA with which to compare the offspring.
  7. If you are ordering semen from a faraway buck, how do you know the described traits of the buck are accurate and truthful? For example, there is a natural human tendency to exaggerate the B&C scores of the bucks.
  8. Unless you really know what you are doing, you will have to hire someone to AI your does.

No doubt the use of AI will continue to increase in the deer farming industry. Semen sellers will have to take extra steps to establish their credibility and reputations. This means being completely truthful about the buck’s traits. It also means putting in place no-hassle guarantees to protect and increase confidence in the buyers. The industry as a whole needs to get its act together and establish EPDs.

Semen buyers need to be careful buyers. Stick with reputable sellers who are willing to guarantee their semen, and are willing to provide you with DNA marker scores should you want to confirm the sire. Be realistic in your expectations knowing that the passing on of certain traits is based on probability.

By Dr. Martin Wenkoff