To AI or not to AI? That is The Question! By Robina Koenig

by President on April 9, 2011

By Robina Koenig, Tumble Creek Farm

As one crop of lambs arrives, I plan next year’s breedings and ponder this very topic. Should I use AI again this fall or wait until next year? How good are my current rams? These and other questions pile up as I make preliminary decisions for my flock.

There are several things to consider regarding the use of LAI (laparoscopic artificial insemination). The following questions outline my view, and are the framework for my breeding-season decisions.

Does AI  fit into my long-range goals for my flock? I was fortunate to have a friend share her thoughts on goal-setting when I first acquired sheep. There are immediate goals—short term of 2 to 5 years— then the long term of 10 or more years.

Of course these will change and be updated as time passes but establishing goals has helped me keep focused. The obvious goal in using AI is genetic progress at a greatly accelerated rate.

Can I afford it? What will it do to my budget? Who/what/where is my market, and how many ewes do I want to commit to? In the choice to use AI, there’s the cost of semen, hormone synchronization supplies, and the technician’s fees to count. There’s my own extra work in preparing my ewes and facility.

If AI will be done at my farm, I will need special equipment available for the technician plus a crew of helpers; if it will be done at someone else’s farm, I need to consider transport, perhaps for many miles. My own accomodations would need to be arranged as well if it is too late to drive home when AI is finished.

Which ram(s) do I want to use? This query takes me the most time to answer. Studying the rams’ pictures and pedigrees for traits and characteristics I’d like to add to my flock is the basis for this decision. A picture may be worth a thousand words, but it can be difficult to evaluate any animal from a single photograph which may or may not have been taken under ideal circumstances. Comments from other breeders who have used the ram, the AI technician, and perhaps the ram’s owner are very helpful.

When shall I schedule AI? When do I want the lambs born? I answer this based on how big I want my lambs for the first show I attend each year, which is the Black Sheep Gathering (BSG), in late June.

Working backward to select an AI date usually runs me into the last show I attend, Oregon Flock and Fiber Festival (OFFF). One of the benefits of AI is the small window of time for lambing—four or five days—of the ewes that conceived to AI. Timing is everything!

What about bringing in a ram (perhaps an AI offspring) from another flock? The old saying “A ram is half your flock” justifies considerable cost, but that expense may still be less than AI, and it eliminates the investment in time and money involved in the AI preparation and procedure.

Using a first-generation AI offspring ram will carry many benefits to my future lamb crop from very remote and diverse sources. Of course the lambing date widens a bit in pasture breeding if I need to plan lambing time around another event on my calendar.

The questions and answers above will change somewhat if I have my own collection of rams from previous AI breedings. The obvious one is cost, but I seriously consider his pedigree and the less predictable lambing dates.

If I do use my own ram then I’ve seen how he’s grown in body and fleece to evaluate his potential. To me, this is what really demonstrates the benefits of AI genetics for the future. Remarkable improvements in all the traits we value as sheep producers can be obtained using AI or AI offspring in our breeding programs.

When I first considered AI there was only one Bluefaced Leicester sire available, Gwestydd Jamie. Working through the new learning curve of hormone therapy, I took my four ewes 150 miles to team up with two friends for a cold January AI session. One of the four ewes settled and produced two ewe lambs. I was ecstatic!

Rates of conception to AI since then have been quite high; several years 100% of my ewes took to AI with excellent results including a set of quadruplets.

The picture is still changing with new rams that have been selected for import. Choose wisely, my friends.

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