Challenges in Artificial Insemination

One problem area in which we have initiated research is artificial insemination of dairy cattle, a service many farmers seek to increase the productivity of their cows. 

IV Lab and Global Good continue to dig deeper into challenges in agricultural productivity to identify where technical innovations could benefit smallholder farmers. One problem area in which we have initiated research is artificial insemination of dairy cattle, a service many farmers seek to increase the productivity of their cows.

Impregnation of dairy cattle benefits farmers in multiple ways. Impregnating a cow results in the production of milk that can be used for the family’s consumption, pay wages of workers, or sold to generate income.  Calves can be sold, or retained for further breeding; a female calf can eventually increase the farmer’s milk production further, or be sold on to other farmers.  Following the birth of a calf, the mother’s milk output increases dramatically, and, over the course of subsequent months, output decreases although the fat content of the milk may increase. The trend continues with following pregnancies, though decreasing as the cow ages. To maximize milk production it is thus important to properly time pregnancies. 

Over the last few centuries, selective breeding has been used to develop dairy breeds that produce huge quantities of milk (5000L/annum), think Jersey and Holstein-Friesian cattle. In contrast, indigenous cows in the developing world, though very well suited for their environment, are far less productive (5-10 times less milk). Recognizing this large discrepancy, many developing world countries are striving to improve milk yields—and therefore farmers’ incomes and food security—by utilizing the genetics of these developed world dairy breeds in crosses with the disease-resistant, hardy indigenous cattle. Artificial insemination is the prevailing method used to accomplish this goal.

Artificial insemination, at its simplest, requires that semen be collected from a well-bred bull, and inserted into a cow when in heat. Over the last century a vast amount of research and development has enabled semen to be cryogenically frozen with liquid nitrogen so that it can be preserved, almost indefinitely, and transported anywhere in the world!  This added benefit carries with it a number of infrastructure and handling challenges to maintain semen fertility through the freeze-storage-thaw process. Along the way, unfortunately, many opportunities exist for the degradation of semen so that it may not be effective when it arrives to rural locations where it was ordered.

Our team has taken a boots on the ground approach to identify meaningful technology development opportunities that address some of these challenges. In the process we have engaged with subject matter experts from academia, NGO’s, and industry. 

We are in the process of refining a set of opportunities and plan to develop technology for the most promising ones.

Check our blogs for upcoming lessons learned from the field research and upcoming inventions to improve the artificial insemination supply chain in low-resource settings.