Artificial Insemination technician injectes a cow with high quality semen, Ethiopia. Credit, Z. Sewunet, ILRI

Artificial Insemination technician injectes a cow with high quality semen, Ethiopia. Credit, Z. Sewunet, ILRI

Artificial insemination (AI) is the process of collecting sperm cells from a male animal and artificially depositing them into the reproductive tract of a female. AI allows the germplasm from species of superior quality to be effectively utilized.

As one of the most widely available genetic technologies in developing countries, with 34 million artificial inseminations were carried out in India alone in 2007, AI contributes in particular to improving cross breeding.  Yet, the relative potential of AI has remained generally unexploited and is mainly used for exploratory purposes by research institutions. A few African countries including Nigeria, Ethiopia, Uganda, Ghana, Botswana, Malawi, Senegal, Mali and Sudan have taken the technology to the field, but mostly to upgrade indigenous stock and to enable a limited number of commercial farmers to keep “exotic” dairy cattle breeds.

Using chilled semen in a smallholder farm. Credit, Bayemi.

Using chilled semen in a smallholder farm. Credit, Bayemi.

Although AI technology is available for other domestic livestock species, AI is still most generally associated with dairy cattle. The use of AI in beef cattle has mainly been limited due to the difficulty in detecting those cattle that are in heat within large herds and where individual cows are handled only occasionally. With sheep and goats there is scope for improvement of the technology. The failure to develop a simple, non-surgical insemination procedure has prevented extensive exploitation of the technology in sheep.[1]

AI has played an important role in enhancing animal productivity, especially milk yields, in developing countries that have a well-defined breeding strategy and a sound technical base to absorb and adapt the technology to meet their needs. AI systems are costly to maintain and require intensive logistic and maintenance because of the need for liquid nitrogen to store semen.[2] Therefore, countries can maintain successful AI systems with: 1) an effective technology transfer mechanism; 2) effectively integrated international assistance into their national germplasm improvement programmes; 3) built and maintained infrastructure; 4) complemented with improvements in animal nutrition and veterinary services; and 5) adequate economic incentives to market dairy products. Many developing countries, however, lack one or more of these requirements.[3]

Contribution to Sustainable Intensification

Progress in semen collection, dilution and cryopreservation (a process where cells or whole tissues are preserved by cooling to sub-zero temperatures) now enables a single bull to be used simultaneously in several countries for up to 100,000 inseminations a year. This implies that a very small number of top bulls can be used to serve a large cattle population. Additionally, each bull is able to produce a large number of daughters thus facilitating accurate progeny testing (a test of the value of an individual’s genotype by looking at the progeny produced by different matings) that allows breeders to select the best cows.

The high intensity and accuracy of selection arising from AI can lead to a four-fold increase in the rate of genetic improvement in cattle relative to that from natural mating. Additionally, AI can reduce the transmission of venereal diseases in a population, limit the need for farmers to maintain their own breeding males, facilitate a more accurate recording of pedigree and is a cheaper means of introducing improved stock.[4] The reduced production costs suggest that farmers can increase their incomes contributing to more profitable livelihoods.

Benefits and limitations
Knowledge and training

The technology, although apparently simple, requires relatively high levels of skill and experience; for example, success depends on accurate detection of cattle ‘in heat’ (the period of time when ovulation occurs increasing the probability of conception) and timely insemination. Detecting when an animal is ‘in heat’ requires a certain level of awareness among farmers while timely insemination is dependent on good infrastructure and access to reliable transport networks.  However, there are also countries which have used the technology more widely. Kenya and Zimbabwe, for example, have more elaborate AI systems which include national insemination services that incorporate progeny testing schemes. South Africa is probably the biggest user of AI technologies and has what is perhaps the best organised progeny testing scheme on the continent.[5]

Increased efficiency of bull usage

During natural breeding a male will deposit much more semen than is technically needed to produce a pregnancy. In addition natural breeding is physically stressful for both the male and the female. Both of these factors limit the number of natural matings a male can make. However, collected semen can be diluted and extended to create hundreds of doses from a single ejaculation. Also, semen can be easily transported allowing multiple females in different geographical locations to be inseminated simultaneously, and semen can be stored for long periods of time meaning that males can produce offspring long after their natural reproductive lives end.[6]

Increased potential for genetic selection

Because artificial insemination (AI) allows males to produce more offspring, fewer males are needed. Therefore, one can choose the best males for use as parents, increasing the selection intensity. Furthermore, because males can have more offspring their offspring can be used in a progeny test program to more accurately evaluate the genetic value of the male (and determine if it is in fact one of the best selections). Finally, individual farmers can use AI to increase the genetic pool with which the herd can be mated, potentially decreasing effects of inbreeding.[7]

Decreased costs

Male animals often grow to be larger than females and consume relatively larger amounts of feed. Also, male animals are often stronger, more powerful, and potentially more aggressive and thus require special housing and handling equipment. In addition, due to the relatively larger size of adult males than females, natural mating is more likely to result in accidents and injury to either the cow or the bull compared to artificial insemination.[8]

Reduced disease transmission

Natural mating allows for the transfer of venereal diseases between males and females. Some pathogens can be transmitted in semen through artificial insemination (AI), but the collection process allows for the screening of disease agents. Collected semen is also routinely checked for quality, which can help avoid problems associated with male infertility.[9]


Artificial Insemination (AI) can be more laborious than natural reproduction. Male animals instinctively detect the females that are in the correct status for conception. With AI, the detection work falls on the responsibility of the farmer. Poor detection results in decreased rates of fertility. Also, increasing the number of offspring per male has selective advantages only if the best males can be accurately determined. Otherwise this process only decreases the genetic variability in a population. Increasing the number of offspring per male always reduces the gene pool. The benefits of more intense selection must be balanced against the negative effects of decreased variation.[10]

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Case Studies

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Case study 1: Mass artificial insemination for Ethiopian cattle (ILRI)
Mass artificial insemination in Ethiopia. Credit CGIAR

Preparing cattle for mass artificial insemination in Ethiopia. Credit CGIAR

Ethiopia boasts the largest number of cattle in Africa, but millions of Ethiopia’s cattle owners struggle to improve the number of female calves their cows birth as well as their milk producing capacity. This is due in part to a deficient breeding system incapable of meeting demand. Currently artificial insemination (AI) technicians must travel door to door and are only able to inseminate an average of 3 cows per day. In many cases, they arrive too late in the cow’s oestrus cycle and insemination cannot take place.[1]

The ‘Improving Productivity and Market Success of Ethiopian Farmers’ (IPMS) project operated in 4 regions of Ethiopia from 2005-2012 with the aim of providing ‘mass insemination.’ Funded by the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), IPMS was a research for development project implemented by International Livestock Research Institute (ILRI) in partnership with the Ministry of Agriculture (MoA) of Ethiopia[2] as well as Regional Agriculture Bureaus and Livestock Agencies. The ‘mass insemination’ model brings cows to the technicians instead of bringing the technicians to the cows. By informing farmers about the benefits of AI and encouraging them to bring their cattle to a central location then synchronising their oestrus using hormones to better ensure fertilisation, thousands more cows can be inseminated with improved varieties and sexed semen to increase the female cattle population.

In total 1,400 cows in Tigray and the Southern Regional State received AI. 95% of the cows responded positively to the hormone treatment to synchronise oestrus, and there was a resulting conception rate of 65%.[3] Using X-bearing (female) sexed semen has resulted in the breeding of 90% female calves. Improved cows sell in Ethiopia for between ETB 18,000-20,000 (about US$850 – $1,000).

Kebeat Halform, a female farmer who participated in the programme, explained that her improved cow produces around 17 litres of milk per day selling for about ETB 140 (US$6.5). Each month, Kebeat earns around ETB 3,000 (almost US$150) that is enough to cover her feed costs and leave her with a profit. Her cow just gave birth to a female calf. She expects to be able to produce more milk, yoghurt and butter that will enable her to school her children and save money.[4]

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Case study 2: BRAC Artificial Insemination programmes
AI worker provides service to a farmer. Credit, BRAC

AI worker provides service to a farmer. Credit, BRAC

In 1987, the charity BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) started working with the Bangladesh Government’s Livestock Department on a vaccination programme that trains para-vets (veterinary assistants) from the local area. The qualified para-vets were then able to earn an income by buying supplies from BRAC and selling veterinary services to the local community. BRAC subsequently launched the Artificial Insemination (AI) programme whereby AI workers provide farmers with access to semen of hybrid cattle breeds that yield more milk, along

In 1987, the charity BRAC (formerly the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee) started working with the Government of Bangladesh’s Livestock Department on a vaccination programme that trains para-vets (veterinary assistants) from rural communities who will then serve farmers in their local area.[1] In 2000, the BRAC Bull and Buck Station in Mymensingh, central Bangladesh, started producing frozen semen from high-quality breeds as part of their Artificial Insemination (AI) programme. The programme trained para-vet entrepreneurs in AI techniques, so they can provide farmers with access to semen of hybrid cattle breeds that yield more milk, along with training on how to care for their livestock. They are also offered access to loans, quality supplies, on-going supervision and refresher training, so that the entrepreneurs can successfully provide services that help support rural farmers.

By 2014 the AI programme employed about 60 staff and has trained more than 2,200 AI entrepreneurs who charge local farmers BDT 180-200 (US $2-$2.5) per cow for the service. In addition to producing more milk, local cow breeds sell for BDT 16,000 (US $204) while the high quality breeds can sell for BDT 100,000 (US $1275). More than 1,400,000 cattle were successfully inseminated in 2014.[2] One dairy farmer, Marium, now owns 7 cows and several calves, all of which are from artificial insemination. She says of her milk that “now… we get the best possible price. The BRAC AI worker helps us look after our cows.”[3]

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Case study 3: Institut de Recherche Agricole pour le Développement (IRAD) Bambui Regional Centre, Cameroon
Loading pipette for artificial insemination. Credit Bayemi

Loading pipette for artificial insemination. Credit Bayemi

Much like other African countries, demand for milk and dairy products is on the rise in Cameroon. Indigenous breeds, all zebu cattle, make up the majority of milk-producers in the country. As these breeds are ‘poor milkers’ producing about 500kg of milk per lactation, they cannot meet demand. Exotic breeds such as Hostein and Jersery produce around 12 litres per day by comparison.

The need to improve the milk producing capacity of the local herd, led to the establishment of livestock research programmes at the Bambui and Wakwa Centres of the Institute of Agricultural Research for Development (IRAD).  The Centre determined that artificial insemination (AI) would be an effective means of achieving this goal. As the only functional AI centre in the Central Africa Region, the centre supports AI services in the Republic of Chad, the Republic of Central Africa, Gabon, Equatorial Guinea and the Congo Republic, because they keep the same cattle breeds as Cameroon.

IRAD Bambui continues to use semen from Holstein-Friesian bulls, originating from northern Europe, to cross breed with local cows so as to improve the dairy potential of the resulting crossbreeds and increase heterosis (when a crossbred individual shows qualities superior to those of both parents). Semen collected from the bulls is evaluated, processed and chilled for subsequent use. This is the first in a series of steps to introducing frozen semen. Previous attempts were unsuccessful because the price of liquid nitrogen was nearly US$30 per litre. With government support for a scheme to reduce the cost of obtaining liquid nitrogen, it could be more easily distributed throughout the country. However, improving the breeding system in Cameroon and its central African neighbours will also require organising breeding societies, empowering research institutions to multiply valuable offspring for improving dairy production and stabilising Cameroonian dairy breeds that are well adapted to local conditions.[1]

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Room for Innovation

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