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What can producers do now to improve semen quality?
Don’t lose sight of the basics when it comes to getting the best results with boar semen. Make sure that the semen is put into an incubator right away after delivery – do not let it sit out in the sun or cold weather. It’s also important to rotate semen as directed. Finally, if you see agglutination, or clumping of the sperm, don’t use that dose. Even if it falls underneath the five-day recommendation, Kerns says that semen should be avoided in all situations.
He says the question of how semen quality can be improved can also be answered from a genetics and reproduction perspective.
“From a genetic usage standpoint, implement practices that require less sperm per dose. For instance, post-cervical AI as opposed to traditional AI or using fixed-time insemination such as Ovugel to sync ovulation time, allowing you to start using the top-tier boars over more sows rather than having to use more boars to do the same inseminations,” Kerns says. “These techniques give you the ability to utilize the best genetics across more finishing pigs, resulting in better production performance.”
From a reproduction perspective, Kerns is re-examining the entire semen extender system (which was mostly produced in the 1980s and 1990s) and working on creating new extenders that properly manage the new zinc signature, managing zinc homeostasis when boar semen is stored.
“There are quite a few chemical components in semen extenders today that are actually detrimental to the sperm zinc signature, inadvertently shortening the fertile lifespan of boar sperm,” he says. “This is some of the stuff that's coming in the future and will be made available to pork producers after my current USDA NIFA Phase II funded field trials are concluded.”
When semen is collected, the goal is to decrease semen motility so sperm don’t use too much energy while being stored, he explained. The challenge is that sperm are also activated at this point and current semen extenders are not doing a good job of inactivating them just yet.
“Since insemination is not occurring at the exact same time, we need to not only keep the metabolism suppressed, but also chemically inactivate them,” Kerns says. “We also need to keep them at the right temperature, the right buffer pH, and keep bacterial growth low. When we keep all this in mind, we are getting semen that can last longer than we ever imagined. There's some really cool things going on there, but it requires a whole systems approach.”
New techniques to analyze boar semen are on the horizon, Kerns explains. This will help support sow herds, increase pregnancy rates on the farm and maximize usage of superior genetics. One of his current projects about to be published is looking at sub compartments of sperm and its relationship with fertility.
With precision agriculture and big data advancements, more opportunities exist than ever before to improve swine production.
“Over the next decade we will see large advancements incorporating big data into livestock production, from the boar stud and sow farm all the way to finisher buildings,” he adds.
That makes the future exciting from Kerns’ perspective. Electronics are reasonably priced and allow for increased observations and data gathering. Having that data can drive herdsmen decisions and advance understanding.
“We know from research done out at the USDA-ARS in Clay Center, Neb., that machine learning can identify sick pigs about three days in advance to what the herdsman can,” Kerns says. “And it’s not because the herdsman is doing a poor job, it's just that you cannot see it, traditionally speaking, until it's progressed a bit whereas sensors paired with machine learning can identify these events much sooner. The precision livestock production era is here.”
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