Sheep AI needs specialized skills, gear and techniques
By Star Staff Writer- Miles City Star, Wednesday, December 9,1998
Artificial insemination of sheep is a far more complicated process than what cattle breeders may be familiar with.
But the advantages to specialized breeders are several, including limiting possible disease exposure, precision in combining the right ram and ewe for the traits desired, and achieving genetic diversity that otherwise would be impossible. The most widely used system involves minor surgery, because few human hands are small enough to manipulate sheep organs the way cattle inseminators do.
Dr. Dennis Gourley, a specialist in laparoscopic artificial insemination, held up his hand, calling it a size 7 or 8.
"You'd need a size 4 hand to work inside sheep," he said.
So sheep and other small ruminants need specialized techniques and instruments, a service he supplies.
"It's a costly, tedious, synchronization system that takes time, but that's what's available to get the genetics you want in these flocks," Gourley said.
He is also pioneering other methods than the minor surgery that is now being used. That would allow sheep producers to do their own inseminations. But the whole field of small ruminant artificial insemination is small, with only a handful of practitioners in the United States. the new methods will take time to fit into the industry.
Gourley was in Miles City last weekend to inseminate 59 Icelandic ewes belonging to Rex and Susan Mongold with semen imported from that island nation. A crew of eight helped with the complex process Saturday.
"It was a great day to show the people we work with what the potentials of this are," Gourley said.
He and Susan Mongold explained that each ewe had been chemically synchronized to ovulate at the correct time. Each had also been held off feed and water for 36 hours prior to the procedure, in part for surgical safety and in part to reduce the contents of rumen and bladder and make the reproductive organs easier to see and work with.
The ewes are secured in a cradle that puts them on their backs. Their bellies are shaved and disinfected in a process similar to those used with humans. A local anesthetic is applied.
Gourley makes two small incisions, about half a centimeter each. One is for the laparoscope, so he can see what he is doing, the other for the tube that will inject the semen.
He pierces one horn of the uterus with the slim glass pipette on the end of the tube, and tell an assistant to "fire," press a syringe that injects the semen. The process is repeated in the second horn of the uterus.
The whole procedure takes 30 seconds to a minute.
The ewe's incisions are then stapled shut, antibiotic is applied, and a liquid bandage covers the area. The ewe is then released to food and water in a pasture.
Gourley' advertisements claim a 70 percent success rate per ewe with the procedure. The Icelandic sheep will lamb in April.
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