The trend seems clear. More pork producers are dumping on-farm boar collection, opting instead to have semen delivered for use in their AI (artificial insemination) programs.

For many just switching to AI, the choice may be one of convenience more than cost.

Although substantial cost savings can be gained with on-farm boar collection as unit size increases, more and more producers say they would rather not mess with the collecting or the lab work, explains Malcolm De Kryger, vice president of business development for Belstra Milling Co. Inc., DeMotte, IN.

De Kryger supervises Belstra Milling's four gilt multiplier farms, 4,500 head in all, supplied by Pig Improvement Company (PIC). He also oversees an 84-head boar stud that sells semen on contract to its PIC customers.

The boar stud, Belvarken AI Center at St. Anne, IL, just across the north central Indiana border, is very isolated in a converted cattle shed. Since it opened two years ago, Chrissy McElfresh has been the farm manager. With the help of three assistants, they hand deliver nearly all semen orders, on a route that extends up to 150 miles away.

Commercial Stud Customer Mike Parsley, manager of United Feeds' 800-sow, farrow-to-finish research farm at Sheridan, IN, is one of the center's customers.

"They have an advantage over a farm like us that would collect all of our own semen. They have the consistent skill level to put out some good quality semen of high genetic potential," Parsley says.

Parsley doesn't think size of an operation has much to do with whether you should buy boar semen or collect it yourself. "I think even if you have 5, 000 sows, you should still purchase semen from a boar stud. That boar stud should be off the farm because of the skill level that is required, and it should have someone with specialized training do that job."

When United Feeds' started its research farm, it was the breeding manager's job to collect boars, process semen, AI the sows, vaccinate and treat sows and move sows. "It was more than one man could do," observes Parsley.

Too many tasks too often mean none are done well. "In the lab, you can't be pressured for time and do a quality job in that area. That was the case here, " he adds.

United Feeds decided to eliminate the semen collection job for their all-AI herd and started buying semen. The move made the breeding manager much happier, Parsley says.

When the initial switch was made, they encountered one small glitch. The PIC boar stud was in Minnesota so semen was sent by overnight mail. "There were some minor quality problems, but really more a discomfort level that it came from so far away," he notes.

Because United Feeds was already a PIC gilt multiplier customer, De Kryger had an edge in converting Parsley to their boar stud. After a short trial period, the United Feeds herd soon became members of the Belvarken boar stud. Now Parsley gets fresh, top-quality semen, hand-delivered, on Monday and Thursday mornings.

Early on, there were some headaches with semen from the Belvarken AI Center, but they've worked through them.

"We are guaranteed that there will be 3 billion viable sperm cells per dose of semen on arrival and if there are problems with dead semen, they will make amends," Parsley explains.

Every effort was made to select top quality boars they wanted semen from. And, although the semen looked good the first day and a half, shortly after it was all dead.

They contacted the boar stud staff only to learn that other collections from the same boar were alive and well.

The next logical question focused on semen handling after delivery.

Parsley acknowledged the importance of proper handling. "Quality control is number one with semen. When it is delivered, whether it is shipped in or driven in, make sure you check it right away and store it properly."

Parsley assured the AI center they were handling the semen properly. They had kept a microscope and a semen storage kit from their on-farm collection and processing program to ensure good handling methods.

And even though there were several incidents, each time De Kryger authorized complete replacement of the shipment in question.

"You should try and make sure the boar stud appears flexible and reasonable when you sign an agreement with them," says Parsley. "But there is only so much you can put in writing in a contract. Sometimes, there still has to be an unwritten 'honesty clause.'"

Quality Semen Production Similarly, there are no written, recognized standards for a semen supplier to follow, points out Wayne Singleton of Purdue University. Of course, the major issues are the health of the boars and the quality of the collections, he says. (See sidebars listing seven tough questions to ask your semen supplier, and, minimum contamination techniques for collecting and processing semen by boar studs.)

On-farm boar studs "absolutely can" achieve quality semen production, says Larry Rueff, DVM, Greensburg, IN. "But can every farm? No, they can't. That was part of the reasoning for designing our boar stud," he adds.

A serious shortage of qualified labor is another big reason Rueff cites for using an off-farm stud. "I never go to a hog farm that has enough skilled, quality labor," he observes. "We thought if we could bring some highly skilled people in to do the collecting and processing of semen and take those detailed jobs away from producers, it would take that worry off the farm."

Veterinary Clinic Stud So, three years ago, Rueff and Dennis Villani, DVM, Swine Veterinary Services, built Progressive Sires, a 50-head boar stud located just a few miles outside of Greensburg.

According to Rueff, the AI stud is an outgrowth of the veterinary practice and their clients are its primary customers. "We weren't interested in making genetic selections for our customers, but we did want to be able to give them genetic choices and then let them decide what genetics were the best for them," he says.

The veterinary clinic owns the boars and attempts to provide cost-effective semen for its mostly local customer base, explains Floyd Wirth, boar stud manager . Their goal is to provide 3 billion viable sperm cells in each dose sold. Semen is available from three terminal boar line suppliers - DEKALB Swine Breeders, Newsham Hybrids and PIC.

"Our clients don't have to worry about all of these technical details. All they want is a tube of semen," observes Rueff.

He continues, "AI consists of four major components - collection, extension, heat detection and insemination. We have taken two of those away from the producer. They don't have to worry about collection and extension of semen, housing, isolating and training boars. That's part of what they are paying for," adds Rueff. Most producers keep a few boars on hand for heat detection and for emergency breedings in cases where they run out of semen.

Costs range from $7.50 to $8.50/dose, including a spirette for insemination. Discounts are available for volume purchases. Rueff says the cost of semen represents only about 2% of the producer's cost of production, so even if a producer with an on-farm stud can save half of that, it doesn't amount to much. "We are not talking about a large cost for quality and service. For a lot of producers, that is a really good deal," Rueff says.

Producers who think they want to run their own studs should take a close look at their costs. "Are they utilizing as good a quality genetics as they possibly can? Are they getting the quality controls they are after?" Rueff asks.

For smaller sow herds doing on-farm collection, it's sometimes tough to justify the more expensive, high-ranking boars. The cost per dose may be lower for the same boar in a boar stud because the expense can be spread over more services.

Then there's the temptation to collect an expensive boar more frequently, so more sows can be bred to him. Don't do it, advises AI stud manager Chrissy McElfresh. "We have two lines of PIC boars and we collect them twice a week. If we collect them two days in a row, they are really down on the second day's collection. You've got to give them three days of rest in between," she says.

At Cambalot Swine Breeders, one of the Belstra Milling multiplier units, semen processing was one of many problems with the on-farm collection program.

"The laboratory was in the break room by the kitchen sink. It wasn't cleaned and taken care of and I don't think they had all of the proper lab equipment, " explains Paul Sheldon, who took over as manager in January 1997. Sheldon cleaned house. All current employees were replaced and the switch was made to buying semen from the Belvarken AI Center.

The results in one year were astounding, recalls Sheldon. Farrowing rate improved from 52% to 82%. Litter size went from 10.6 to 11.8; pigs weaned/sow/year climbed from 17 to 25.

Cambalot also turned the entire sow herd, bringing in all new gilts, which makes production improvements that much more amazing, says Belstra's De Kryger.

Rueff also feels a commercial boar stud can, and is willing to, turn boars faster than a 400-500-sow producer with on-farm collection would. As soon as genetic changes come along, we bring in the boars that reflect those changes, he says. Sometimes that means only keeping boars in the stud from 6-12 months. "We'd like to keep boars for two years, but it's not going to happen, " says Rueff.

Other common reasons for culling boars include deteriorating semen quality and structural soundness. It's important to look for the drop in semen quality.

"We have boars come in here that do great for a year or so, then all of a sudden you collect them, their semen is dead," says Rueff. They ate normally, acted normally and mounted the dummy normally, but semen quality was anything but normal. Those boars are usually done, no matter how much you paid for them.

With AI, producers of all sizes have equal access to top genetics from boars around the country, says Rueff. Their AI customers range in size from 20 sows to 800 sows. That's the beauty of AI.

Next month: A look at biosecurity of the commercial boar stud.

Whether you run an on-farm boar stud, or work for a commercial stud, University of Illinois' Gary Althouse, DVM, outlines these quality control steps:

Boar Prep/Semen Collection

1. Periodically trim hair from around the boar's preputial opening (sheath area).

2. If needed, clean preputial opening and surrounding area with a single-use, disposal wipe.

3. Evacuate any preputial fluids from the prepuce manually prior to grasping penis for semen collection.

4. Ensure that the semen collector wears disposable, vinyl gloves or uses a hand disinfectant (i.e. alcohol foam) between collection of boars to reduce semen contamination and risk of cross-contamination between boars.

5. Hold penis perpendicular to boar to minimize the chance of preputial fluids running down penis into semen collection vessel.

6. Allow the first few jets of an ejaculate (i.e. pre-sperm fraction which contains urethral flushings/urine) to go on the floor rather than into the semen collection vessel.

7. Dispose of rubber band and filter/gauze covering the collection vessel before delivering collected semen to the lab for further processing.

Semen Processing/Lab Sanitation

1. To reduce microbial contamination of extended semen, try to use disposable products when economically feasible.

2. When reusing laboratory materials which can't be heat/gas sterilized or boiled, clean using a lab-grade detergent with water, followed by a distilled water rinse and finally a 70% alcohol (non-denatured) rinse. Allow enough time and proper ventilation for complete evaporation of residual alcohol. Flush with distilled water or extender prior to re-use.

3. Disinfect countertops and equipment at end of processing day with a residue-free detergent.

4. Mop floor at end of day with a disinfectant, either a phenolic or formalin product.

5. Break down bulk products (extenders) into smaller units immediately after opening.

Boar stud consultant Gary Althouse, DVM, is blunt. "There is really a large variation in the quality of product coming out of commercial boar studs." The University of Illinois clinician says potential semen buyers should protect themselves by asking these seven tough questions of their suppliers:

1. What isolation and testing procedures do you perform? He suggests a minimum 45-day isolation period to make sure sufficient time is given for complete testing and observation. Isolation should be run all-in, all-out, and animals should be tested for brucellosis, pseudorabies, porcine reproductive and respiratory syndrome, swine influenza virus (SIV), transmissible gastroenteritis (TGE) and Actinobacillus pleuropneumonia (APP). Although SIV, TGE and APP aren't primarily transmitted in semen, if they are tracked into a nave boar stud, it will cause boars to get sick and not produce quality semen for a variable period of time.

Other health monitoring procedures which should be performed in addition to blood testing include daily monitoring of feed intake, water consumption and behavioral patterns.

2. Are minimum contamination protocols used by the stud? (See sidebar page 37.) "Bacterial contamination of extended semen has become a pretty big problem in this industry," Althouse declares. Bacterial contamination of extended semen generally causes a decrease in product quality and longevity within 48 hours of storage. These bacteria are resistant to the antibiotics in the semen and, thus, are allowed to multiply in the extended semen. The bacteria utilize the same nutrients as the sperm, causing sperm to starve out and die. In general, these bacteria don't cause disease in swine.

3. Is sperm motility and morphology checked prior to processing by a qualified technician? Often, motility is checked, but not morphology. Althouse says published minimum quality standards currently are 70% motility and 80% normal morphology. Some studs even raise these minimum values if they know semen is to be stored for an extended period of time before use. Each ejaculate shouldbe analyzed.

4. How many sperm cells are in a dose of semen? "I like to see 3 billion sperm/dose of quality semen if the semen is going to be used within 72 hours of collection and processing," says Althouse. For commercial production, he doesn't recommend using extended semen much beyond 72 hours, and only if difficulties in semen delivery scheduling are the problem. Watch out for studs trying to compensate for poor quality semen by putting more sperm in a dose, he warns. This is not a sound practice, and can cost the producer in both getting females pregnant and number of pigs born.

5. Is the semen cooled to the correct temperature before it is shipped? Semen should be cooled and warmed in a linear decrease/increase fashion. That means temperature increases and decreases should be in a straight line and not fluctuating back and forth. Semen should be cooled to about 60-64F when shipped and stored at 60-62F until use.

6. Have appropriate temperature curves been developed for the containers and/or vehicles in which the semen I receive was shipped? "A lot of studs are now making sure that the way they ship semen actually controls the temperature at which the semen is stored, and that dramatic fluctuations in temperature do not take place during transit," explains Althouse.

7. Does the boar stud routinely look at the quality of the extended semen once it has been cooled? A sample of every extended ejaculate should be retained and checked at least every other day to make sure it meets expectations on longevity. Studs should notify customers of any irregularities in extended semen quality.

According to Althouse, the pork industry has become even more sophisticated about semen quality as more producers use AI. "I feel that the majority of boar studs are addressing the potential for disease transmission in semen; they are doing a good job. What I think we need to focus on now is the quality of the product that is being sent out."