Finding Success in a Straw
An Introduction to Artificial Insemination
Reading Time: 4 minutes
By Jaclyn Krymowski
We all love the sight of happy, healthy, playful kids jumping about; who are the direct result of mindful, successful mating. No matter how big or small your herd, reproduction is an important aspect of goatkeeping. Thanks to animal science, today we have more than one way to get your does pregnant each year. Artificial insemination (A.I.), is a breeding method that sounds a bit intimidating at first, but a very simple process and cost-effective way to improve your herd without the hassle of a live buck.
What is A.I. and what does it have to do with goats?
Artificial insemination is the process of placing semen directly into the uterus of a doe. The most common method utilizes insertion via a speculum and insemination rod. Another A.I. method practiced on small ruminants, a laparoscopic procedure, is done surgically by a veterinarian who makes the semen deposit directly through the body cavity. Whatever method, A.I. success requires a sound understanding of the female reproductive cycle (called the estrous cycle), and how it can be manipulated. Due to the equipment, training, skill, and time involved you may wonder why anyone would go through the trouble.
The first and perhaps most obvious reason for A.I. is to eliminate keeping a live buck on the premises. A buck is used annually for one job, and the rest of the year he requires all the time and costs of raising any other animal. Additionally, many goatkeepers find themselves tasked with the difficulty of finding a quality buck to lease within a reasonable distance. Even if you’re only breeding a few each year, A.I. can easily be the cheaper, more time-efficient option depending on your resources.
Another big bonus is the opportunity to utilize the genetics of very elite bucks, particularly those in herds you would otherwise be unable to access. Many high-performance herds routinely collect their sires and sell semen units at an affordable price. You can have these shipped directly to your doorstep, greatly increasing the cost-effectiveness of more valuable offspring. You can have daughters by nationally-decorated and long-dead sires in your own herd!
A.I. takes time and practice to get good at, but many goat clubs, associations, extensions offices, and universities offer classes to get you started. Once you know what you’re doing and place a few rods through some does, the layman can become quite comfortable with the procedure.
How it all works
Does are seasonally polyestrous animals, meaning they come into multiple heats, or estrous cycles, only during certain times of the year. For goats, this is late summer through late fall — the breeding season is triggered by the amount of light exposure an animal gets in the changing seasons through the pineal gland in the brain releasing the hormone melatonin.
Within the estrous cycle, there are different stages. The one we care most about for breeding is estrus (without the ‘o’) which lasts about two to three days and is what’s referred to as the standing heat. This is the timeframe in which a doe will naturally stand to be serviced. To give the sperm cells a chance to reach an egg as ovulation begins, semen must be deposited within this time. If you have an excellent eye and know your animals very well, you may be able to catch this time and breed on the natural cycle. More commonly, folks who A.I. also use some form of estrous synchronization via hormonal treatment.
Estrous or ovulation synchronization is the term used for hormonally altering a doe’s cycle to align with breeding for either artificial or natural service. This enables you to breed at the most appropriate time for kidding and A.I. convenience. There are many different methods and products on the market for hormonal treatments, using them properly will greatly increase your chances of a successful pregnancy. It takes some research to determine which is best for you and your situation.
Where the magic happens
The A.I. process should happen approximately 12-15 hours after the onset of heat to ensure the doe will be “standing.” The discharge from the doe’s vulva should be thick and cloudy, usually evident during insemination or on the rod after it’s pulled out. Unlike a natural service, the semen must be deposited on the opposite side of the cervix. This is because semen that has been frozen, thawed, and handled isn’t as potent as when deposited by a live buck.
With the doe secured in a stanchion, the breeder inserts a speculum directly into the doe’s vulva directly up to the cervix. Non-spermicidal lubricant is recommended to help with this. Some nice high-quality speculums have a light attached, but otherwise, a small handheld flashlight will do. Looking through the speculum with the light, you can see the end of the cervix and the os, or opening, in the middle. This is where the rod will be pushed through. The breeder can carefully guide the rod into place, once it is through the os it will take some firm and steady pushing, you will feel a “grisly” feeling as the rod moves through the folds of the cervix and comes out with a popping noise. This is how you know you are in the uterus.
Semen should be deposited in a steady plunge. Remember to keep the rod in place, if you pull it out before full pushing down on the plunger you will lose some semen by accidentally depositing it into the cervix. And just like that, you’ve bred a doe!
There are lots of resources available for those considering adopting A.I. into their goat herd. By far the best way to understand the procedure is to learn from someone experienced. Check with your state or regional goat associations if they host A.I. training sessions, often for an affordable price or even free. If you have a land grant university near you with an animal sciences department, someone who specializes in small ruminants may also be able to help you find a reliable breeder in your area.
Don’t be afraid to speak with other goat breeders as well, both in-person or via the internet. You won’t be able to learn to be a successful breeder from online videos or forums, but you can get connected to real-life resources and obtain information to aid in the decision making.
One of the joys of the goat world is the many opportunities to better your management and your herd. Who knows — the next star on your farm may come from a straw in a tank!
Jaclyn Krymowski is a graduate of the Ohio State University with a B.S. in animal industries. A dairy enthusiast, she milks, raises, and shows registered Alpines and Nubians. You can find her blog at the-herdbook.com.
Originally published in the September/October 2020 issue of Goat Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.