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Home / Smart Harvest

Five-step guide to artificially inseminating your dairy cow

Robert Kosgei a farmer in Torongo village, Baringo performs artificial insemination on a cow. Since an AI provider charges per service, the more they service a cow the higher their earnings. [Kipsang Joseph, Standard].

Njoroge Karanja, a farmer in Ndeiya, Nderu, Kiambu County, has two adult Holstein cows for milk production.

He also has a medium-sized one that is still growing. The latest additions to the herd are 5-month-old calves conceived through artificial insemination (AI) sometime last year.

“I have always used AI as far back as the 90s,” he says. Karanja has reared cows for several decades now. He has always preferred AI compared to using a bull.

According to Dr Michael Chege, a veterinarian and the head of AI in Kiambu County, semen from AI is top quality.

From February 2019, the Kiambu County government began offering free AI services to its farmers.

“Before the programme, AI businesses offered the service at costs ranging between Sh1,000 and Sh1,500 per insemination. We felt that farmers were being exploited,” Dr Chege says.

Karanja is one of the beneficiaries of the programme; something that he is grateful for because he understands the back-and-forth a farmer may experience with private inseminators.

He says: “It is not always automatic that the cow conceives. Sometimes a cow needs two, three or more inseminations before it conceives.

“In May this year I sold one cow which just couldn’t conceive. It had been inseminated numerous times – I lost count.”

Failed attempts

In some parts of the country, farmers have complained that AI is ‘not working’. “You try even three times and the cow isn’t conceiving,” Mwendwa*, a Makueni farmer, tells Smart Harvest and Technology.

Mwendwa suspects that some unscrupulous AI service providers are coning farmers and not really offering actual bull semen.

“I don’t know what to look for in semen. I wouldn’t tell fake semen from real one,” he says.

And so, since an AI provider charges per service, the more they service a cow the higher their earnings.

Is AI supposed to have 100 per cent success rate?

In Kiambu, the free AI programme has recorded a 70 per cent conception rate with the first insemination.

“This is actually high,” Dr Chege says. “The remaining 30 per cent usually require two or three more trials before conception happens.”

It should also be known that some cows – just like human beings – could be infertile and therefore unable to conceive.

The following are ways through which farmers can increase chances of conception through AI.

1.      Give the cow a good supply mineral supplements

All animals need minerals for optimal growth and reproduction. Minerals essential to cattle nutrition are classified as either macrominerals or microminerals.

Cattle require macronutrients such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorus, potassium, sodium, chlorine and sulfur.

Cattle also require micronutrients – about 10 of them. Of the ten, seven are critical for the animal’s growth and development. They are: iron, manganese, copper, zinc, selenium, cobalt and iodine.

“Without these critical minerals the cow won’t easily come on heat,” says John Areng, an inseminator with Kiambu County government and a graduate of Animal Health.

Mineral supplements for cattle are available in most agro vet shops across the country, Areng points out.

2.      Good nutrition and feeding

Dr Chege says food is an integral part of a cow’s oestrous (reproductive) cycle.

According to Alex Gathii, a dairy production expert with Tanolope Consulting Ltd, a cow has proper nutrition when it is fed with proteins, energy, minerals, vitamins, fiber and water.

“Why does a cow eat food?” Gathii asks, rhetorically. “Because it needs energy and nutrients for production (milk), to stay alive, to support growth and development and to reproduce (give birth).”

A cow, he says, is fed according to its needs. On average though a cow needs to consume dry matter equivalent to at least 3 per cent of its body weight every day.

Gathii says: “For instance, a heifer needs to gain weight at the rate of about 800g per day. By the time it is ready to be inseminated – after about 14 months – it should be weighing at least 60 per cent of its mother’s weight.”

Without good nutrition, Dr Chege says, the cow may fail to come on heat or it would have silent heat – without the accompanying signs such as discharge of clear mucous from the vulva.

The animal should also be supplied with clean drinking water. Cows exhibiting water stress (lacking water for a long time), struggle to come on heat.

3.      Proper timing

A cow’s oestrous cycle is 21 days. This means that it comes on heat every 21 days. It is critical, Dr Chege says, that the farmer calls for insemination at the right time.

“The heat phase runs for 18 to 24 hours and is therefore a short window that needs to be timed very well,” Dr Chege says.

What should a farmer look for?

Dr Chege says: “The first thing the farmer will notice is that the animal will change its behaviour. It will become restless, will start billowing, it won’t feed properly, and if it is lactating, milk production will drastically reduce.”

As heat progresses the cow will start mounting others in the pen. It might also mount the farmer; or even other human beings.

Clear mucous discharge would then follow – perhaps the clearest sign that the animal is on heat.

According to Gathii, artificial insemination uses the AM/PM rule. “If the farmer notices the animal on heat in the morning then insemination should be done in the evening. If the farmer notices the animal on heat past noon, then insemination should be done the following day before midday.”

Dr Chege stresses that the heat period is quite short and a farmer should have a keen eye for it. If insemination is done too early or too late, he says, chances of conception become low.

4.      health of the animal

Just like human beings, Gathii says, animals need to be healthy for conception to take place.

“There are situations where a farmer will keep trying AI for their cow with very little success not knowing that the cow’s health could be the hindering factor,” Gathii says.

Some bacterial infections, he says, affect a cow’s fertility – or render the cow unable to conceive. The farmer needs to consult a vet to ascertain if the animal has an infection and if it can be treated successfully.

“The other health factors that affect success of AI are presence of ovarian cysts and hormonal imbalance,” Gathii says.

The oestrous cycle is a hormone-controlled process. Hormonal imbalance in the animal would therefore interfere with conception.

“Animals that have hormonal imbalance undergo synchronisation (hormonal treatment) to bring them to heat,” Gathii says.

The cost of synchronisation, Areng says, is high, “Sh3,500 per treatment”. This, he says, might prove too expensive for the average farmer.

In general, Gathii says, a cow conceives much more easily when it is in good state of health. Good animal health comes when a farmer frequently engages vets for deworming, treatment and vaccinations.

5.      Get qualified personnel

To avoid being taken for a ride, always ask these questions: Who is providing the AI services? A qualified person or a quack out to make quick buck? Money, Gathii notes, can be an intrinsic factor that influences AI providers. Several things need to happen for AI to be successful, Gathii says.

“The semen has to have been stored in liquid nitrogen in temperatures of −196°C.

“Sometimes the inseminator mishandles the semen and it loses viability. How the inseminator handles the semen determines its efficacy,” Gathii points out.

If, at the point of insemination, the semen is not thawed enough to reach temperatures of around 36 degrees centigrade, or is overheated, then the semen most likely loses viability.

The inseminator, Gathii points out, should have experience doing the job. “If they are not skilled they may not even know whether the straw carrying the semen has gone past the cervix. Get a qualified person to do AI.”

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