Tuesdays with Tony
Usually, this time of year I like to talk to you all about mares and foals and breeding your mare. Recently, however, we have had a few stallions come through the clinic and so I figured there is no time better than the present to talk about stallions and semen. I guess, I typically avoid the subject because, well, I lost my stallion status at a young age, and lets be honest, no one ever fully recovers from that. But alas, I must address the subject because, maybe you have a stallion and someone has approached you about breeding to him, or maybe you have your eye on a stallion that you would like to breed your mare to. The desire to breed is the first step, however, stallion collection and semen evaluation and shipping involves many more steps.
First lets talk about the semen collection process. More and more frequently stallion owners are shying away from live cover, unless you’re a breeder of thoroughbred race horses, but thats a topic for an entirely different blog. Live cover for any horse is a very risky process. No just for the stallion but for the mare as well. I’ve met my fair share of mares and let me tell you, they can have CATtitude. Those girls are sassy, they will kick and bite for not reason. I can only imagine if they have a horse trying to mount them how they would respond but from what I heard, they can be very quick to kick. If a mare kicks a stallion in the genitals, that could be career ending for that stallion. If an owner choses to allow their stallion to live cover, they may require that the mare be sedated or placed in hobbles or both. This is not just for the stallion’s safety but for the mare’s as well. Think about it, 1000-1200+ pounds of pure muscle trying to mount her and she moves, the next thing you know she has a hoof to the head, or teeth taking a chunk out of her side. The other downside to live cover, is there is rarely any way to evaluate the semen quality as an entire ejaculate is deposited directly into the mare’s vagina. Live cover is risky business. There are benefits of live cover as well. For one, there is no question that the correct stallion and correct mare are being bred. There is also no need to use semen extenders to help keep the semen alive as they are already in their second favorite home, the mare’s reproductive tract. Live cover also allows for the mare to be exposed to the stallion several times while she is in season as opposed to other methods in which there is often only 1 dose of semen available.
A more common way to collect semen is to use a phantom. If you’ve been to my clinic you’ve probably seen our phantom. You may have even thought it was used from something such as bull riding practice. You would be wrong. That is in fact our phantom that we use when my docs collect stallions for semen processing and breeding. The first step of collecting a stallion using the phantom is to train them to mount the phantom. Luckily, instinct is on the docs side and most stallions want to mount something when exposed to a mare. My docs use a tease mare to get the stallion ready to mount. They keep the stallion on the opposite side of a wall to protect himself and the mare. Once the stallion is ready, they clean his penis with warm water. Once he is clean, he is teased to the mare again. Then he is introduced to the phantom. He is encouraged to mount the phantom from the back and wrap both front legs around the phantom on either side. Often times my docs will place some urine from a mare on the phantom to encourage the stallion to mount and stay on the phantom.
Once the stallion has mounted the phantom my docs use what is referred to as an artificial vagina (AV) to collect the stallions semen. The AV is prepared with a protective liner inside and filled with warm to hot water based on the stallions preference, and yes, apparently stallions have a preference. Picky, picky boys. While on the phantom, the stallion’s penis is placed into the AV and semen is collected through a filter into a dark container since semen does not like light.
As you can imagine, teaching a stallion to be collected artificially and learning their preferences is not always an easy task and often dangerous, however, once the stallion learns his job, the whole process becomes routine for the stallion and my docs.
Now that my docs have collected semen from the stallion, it is time to evaluate and process the semen. The first step in evaluating semen is to figure out the volume of semen collected. Once a volume is measured, a sample of semen is used to evaluate the concentration of sperm in the semen. A stallion may have produced a large amount of semen, but there may be a very low sperm concentration, or conversely, there may be a small amount of semen that has a very high concentration of sperm. Either way, my docs can determine the concentration, and from there they can use their fancy shmancy math and determine the appropriate dose of semen to use to breed a mare. During semen evaluation, my docs will also look at a sample under the microscope. While looking at the sample they evaluate how the sperm are moving, in what direction they are moving, and if there is a high ratio of dead to live sperm present. All of these factors play a role in what my docs determine is the correct dose of semen to breed a mare with.
Cooled Shipped vs Frozen
When semen is collected artificially it must be processed before breeding the mare. This is done to extend the lifespan of the semen and allow for transport of semen throughout the world. There are two ways in which semen can be processed, it can be cooled and shipped immediately, or it can be frozen and stored for later use. Once the semen has been thoroughly evaluated by my docs, they will then add in a semen extender which has nutrients for the semen to live off of for a couple of days prior to being inseminated into a mare. The benefit of cooled semen is, a stallion owner can obtain several doses of semen to send to multiple mares from only one collection of the stallion. On the mare owners end of things, cooled shipped semen is very popular as they can get semen from almost anywhere in the world to use with their mare. Compared to live cover, a concentrated dose of semen is inseminated directly into the uterus whereas, with live cover, semen is deposited into the vagina and has to find its way through the cervix and into the uterus. Frozen semen is a completely different ball game and involves the use of liquid nitrogen, storage tanks and a lot more steps than this cat cares to know about. However, frozen semen allows for stallions to be collected and their semen stored indefinitely even once the stallion has died. Once a mare owner has decided to use a dose of frozen semen, it is thawed, and inseminated in a similar manner as cooled semen.
Fertility rates are decreased with the use of semen extenders and in the cooling and freezing process. However, with appropriate mare and stallion management, conception rates can be as high as 33%, meaning that with one breeding cycle the mare may become pregnant. Given the technology and medications available for use by my docs, 33% change of a pregnancy in 1 go around, seems pretty darn good to me. Although all of this collecting, processing and breeding stuff, is way to much for this cat, I think I am thankful that my stallion status was removed all those years ago, I can spend so much more time sleeping.
But, if you have a stallion that you think you want to collect and may want my docs to spend a few days teaching him about the phantom, give my minions a call and they will get your stallion on the schedule for a date with the phantom.
Until next week,
PS- If you’d like to know more about breeding check out our Podcast on breeding here.