Feed the Future
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Could Artificial Insemination be the Solution to Increase Milk Production and Ensure Food Security?

Before I answer the above mentioned question, let us agree on the concept of food security. Defined by the United Nations, food security is "the condition in which all people, at all times, have physical, social and economic access to sufficient safe and nutritious food that meets their dietary needs and food preferences for an active and healthy life.” According to the US Government’s Global Food Security Strategy (FY 2017-2021), food security is not just an economic and humanitarian issue; it is also a matter of security, as growing concentrations of poverty and hunger leave countries and communities vulnerable to increased instability, conflict and violence.

Proponents of milk and other dairy products have described them as “the perfect foods.” This is because the combination of nutrients meet a person's nutritional needs. 

Various technologies have been utilized to increase milk production in cows. In many developing countries, artificial insemination (AI) is being promoted as the answer to increases in milk production. There is some truth to this concept, as in the US, there were more cows during 1942 which produced less milk compared to the lower number of cows which produced more milk in 2007 (Fig 1). AI should be given partial credit for the dramatic change in reducing the number of cows while increasing milk production.

Fig 1.  Comparison between number of cows and milk production during 1942 vs. 2007 (Source: USDA/NAAS – 2008 Data)

AI is a time-tested technology and, if used properly by skilled technicians, can improve milk production. However, it is a technique, not a solution to the many reasons for low milk production. AI encompasses semen collection from a male, processing the semen and inseminating a female at the appropriate time. It is important to understand how the use of AI can speed up the increase in milk production. For example, during natural breeding, on average, a bull deposits about six ml semen in the reproductive tract of a cow. Moreover, bull semen contains about one billion sperm/ml, which means the bull is depositing six billion sperm in one cow at one breeding. With 50+ years of research in semen preservation technology, we know that about 15 mil sperm are required for a cow to become pregnant. So processing one collection of bull semen can result in enough semen to inseminate (15 mil sperm/AI dose) 400 cows! One can imagine, if the semen from a genetically superior bull is used, the offspring from these cows will have the potential to produce more milk. In addition to AI, other reproductive technologies, e.g. embryo transfer, have also played an important role in increasing milk production.

Factors impacting AI success
It has been said that "reproduction is a luxury function of the body;" that is a cow doesn’t need to reproduce to survive! Some believe that a cow should be in perfect health to get pregnant, carry pregnancy to full-term and give birth to a live calf. The following factors are considered important for the successful outcome of AI.

1. Nutrition: A cow should have good body condition to have regular reproductive cycles (estrous cycle in livestock), to get pregnant after AI or natural breeding and to deliver a live calf. Poor body condition may be due to lack of proper nutrition which provides essential ingredients, including protein, carbohydrates, essential trace minerals, etc. Another important reason for poor body condition may be internal parasites competing for the food in an animal’s body. Proper anti-parasitic medications based upon the parasite identification is highly recommended as a preventive measure in livestock.     

Wheat straw was the main feed for the malnourished dairy cows on a farm. Due to improper feed, and possible parasites (e.g. liver flukes), the cows didn’t cycle to be bred or get pregnant.

2. Animal diseases: Diseases caused by bacteria, viruses, etc. can cause infertility and/or miscarriage. Appropriate veterinary care, including vaccinations to prevent diseases, is essential for the successul outcome of AI. 

3. Skilled AI technician: AI technicians trained in semen handling and insemination is another important factor for AI success. In many developing countries, veterinarians (zoo engineers trained in former Soviet Union countries) perform AI. Whereas, in most of the developed countries, AI technicians are utilized to perform that duty. Regardless of the status of an inseminator, proper training (and practice) is key for succesful AI. According to the author’s observations, some farm owners with limited experience make an attempt to inseminate their cows with less than desiarble preganancy rates. Like with any other technique, "practice makes perfect."  

Hands-on practice on reproductive tracts and on live animals are important parts of the training in artificial insemination (AI), and veterinarians were provided the AI training on water buffaloes

4.Veterinarians’ role: The pregnancy rate after first AI in cows is usually about 60 percent. The real challenge is to find out why the other 40 percent of cows did not get pregnant. Was it due to reproductive disease or another cause? A veterinarian with a broad-based education and training would be able to utilize needed diagnostic tools to find the cause. 

Livestock and environment: As indicated earlier, one of the main benefits of AI is having fewer genetically superior animals producing more milk, a plus since cattle are blamed for environmental pollution through carbon dioxide emission and soil degradation. The dairy farms could also benefit from AI by having fewer animals to feed by eliminating bulls. As dairy bulls grow older they can become aggressive, and it is safer without them. If castration is practiced, the resulting steers grow better and produce more meat.

Dr. Memon checking a cow’s reproductive tract by palpation per rectum and discussing the findings with the cow owner and AI trainees in Kassela, Mali during May 2018 

Acknowledgements: The author appreciates the review, valuable comments and formatting for the article by We-Empower colleagues: Noubia Gribi, Janet Ott and Rostane Gribi, respectively. 

About the author: Mushtaq Memon, Professor Emeritus of Washington State University, is a Board-certified specialist in veterinary reproduction (Theriogenology). He is currently the Vice President for livestock at We-Empower.