Pro’s and Cons of Artificial Insemination

Does Artificial Insemination (otherwise known as AI.) have a place within the Budgerigar fancy? This seems to be a current topic of discussion within the hobby. Under the rules of the Budgerigar Society in Britain, AI is forbidden, yet under the rules of the American Budgerigar Society AI is allowed, and even promoted. Such a difference of opinion on the opposite sides of the shores of the Atlantic within the Budgerigar fancy is worthy of a major discussion. Are the Americans right to use AI, and are we in the UK missing out by not using the technique, especially when low fertility seems to be a major problem over here, or are we right to forbid the technique?

Before we can really consider the rights and wrongs of AI, we must discuss the technique of artificial insemination in order to find out what the procedure involves, how it works, when it can be used.

The results of using AI

Artificial insemination is the injection of semen from a male, into the vagina of a female by instrumental means, (usually of the same species but can be used to produce certain hybrid forms when copulation between the two different species would not naturally take place). The earliest experiments of AI with animals that produced live young, (rather than shelled eggs), were recorded by the Italian physiologist Lazzaro Spallanzani who proved that it was the semen that made the male’s contribution to new life during the act of mating (copulation). Very little further research or experimentation was conducted into AI until the genetic principles were unravelled after the work of the “Father of Genetics” Gregor Mendel, were rediscovered in 1900 by three different biologists, working independently of each other, in different parts of Europe; Carl Correns in Germany, Hugo de Vries in Holland and Erich von Tschermak-Seysenegg in Austria.

The use of AI in the Dairy and Beef Industry

Once the science of genetics had been founded, it became apparent that scientifically planned breeding programmes to improve beef and dairy production could be rapidly transformed by using the technique of artificial insemination, using the semen of the superior males on much larger female populations than natural mating would allow. The pioneering research was conducted in Russia at around the time of the Revolution in 1917.

The technique of artificial insemination was progressively used throughout Europe after the pioneering work in Russia, and the breeders of Friesian and Holstein dairy cattle made great improvements in milk production by the use of artificial insemination in the 1920’s and 1930’s. These two breeds of dairy cattle now provide the overwhelming majority of milk production throughout the developed world, and virtually 100% of dairy cattle are bred by the use of artificial insemination.

Milk production is a massive industry, with a capital value and annual turnover running into many billions of pounds. Since artificial insemination is the essential “tool” to maintain the dairy industry, many millions of pounds are spent annually on breeding trials, research, and progeny testing of stock produced by bulls with the finest pedigrees, containing the most impeccably kept records of all ancestors, before the semen of an intended bull is used in commercial AI programmes. Any bulls that fail the very high standards required for major use within the commercial dairy herd are rejected and culled from the herd, and the records of close relatives are further examined to see if the failure is of genetic origin, and hence heritable.

Further advances in techniques

In 1949, a technique of freezing semen was developed, which allowed large quantities of semen from one individual to be stored, and even used, long after the death of the producer of the semen. It had already been discovered that less semen was required to achieve fertility when AI was used, than during natural copulation, and therefore one ejaculation from a bull could produce at least 10 offspring, whereas natural mating produces only one offspring in cattle. The use of frozen semen occurred at around the same time that commercial air travel became common, and soon, the use of frozen semen coupled with artificial insemination had a major impact upon dairy cattle production world-wide. It was now possible to send the semen of the desired bulls to anywhere in the world without sending the bull, and furthermore, a bull’s semen could be used in many different countries simultaneously. Genetically, this has enormous implications for the gene pool in dairy cattle.

The use of artificial insemination is not just restricted to dairy cattle but of course, the commercial use is greatest within this industry. The technique can be used in many species of animal or bird, where semen can be collected and this can be used to impregnate a chosen female. AI can be most useful in the saving of endangered species by ensuring that most females produce offspring to increase the population numbers.

AI in Humans

Artificial insemination in humans was first reported in the late 19the century, and much of its early use occurred in secrecy. It was only in the 1950’s, after the technique of freezing semen was developed, that artificial insemination became widespread in human medicine. The first human produced from stored semen was born in 1953. The technique is now commonly used in the treatment of human infertility. A male who is sterile (produces no spermatozoa) will never be able to participate in reproduction, although he can enjoy trying, since his semen will contain no sperm; but a male of low fertility may be able to produce offspring by artificial insemination techniques. Also, females with damaged or diseased reproductive organs may be assisted to conceive by AI when normal copulation fails to produce offspring. The higher levels of fertility that can be achieved by artificial insemination than by natural mating, are as a result of the egg being surrounded by a greater number of sperm after insemination by the artificial technique, since the sperm do not have to swim so far to reach the egg after being placed closer to the egg, manually.

Selection is the Issue

The dairy industry has benefited greatly by the use of artificial insemination, not because artificial insemination is a panacea that works like magic just by the very use of the method, but because of the very rigorous selection of the bulls that are used in conjunction with artificial insemination. The testing of the bulls prior to being used as semen donors in artificial insemination is the foundation upon which the success of AI in milk production has been laid. The knowledge of the science of genetics has been the key to the success of the improvements of the world-wide dairy herd; those who have been responsible for the development of artificial insemination, have carefully and patiently developed many different strains of bulls that are prepotent and can be guaranteed to improve or maintain the level of milk production in all their female offspring.

Don’t you just wish you could buy cock budgerigars that could be guaranteed to improve your own stud? One of the reasons that you cannot do this is because Budgerigar breeders have not been as thorough in the selection process, and as ruthless in culling their stock, as have been the breeders of the bulls used in Breed Improvement programmes for milk production. If artificial insemination in dairy cattle production had been practised without the rigorous selection procedures that are constantly practised. and are constantly being reviewed, then the use of artificial insemination would have been an even bigger disaster than it has been a success. AI has the same potential to very rapidly spread undesirable genes, as it has to spread desirable genes, throughout a very large population. A study of the mathematics of population genetics, demonstrates the ease with which undesirable genes could be spread and also the incredible difficulty in removing such genes, once present, in a large population. In the case of dairy cattle production, it is the pressure of the commercial value of the dairy industry as a whole which is at stake, that acts as insurance for the continuous research into the breeding programmes used in conjunction with AI..

In the selection process used in assessing bulls for use with artificial insemination, the fertility levels are also monitored, besides the ability of the bull to impart high milk yields to his female offspring. In order to collect semen from bulls, the bull must “mate” with either a “teaser” animal (live steer) and the bull’s penis is inserted into an artificial “vagina” and the ejaculated semen is then collected within this receptacle, or the bull mates with a dummy which has a “vagina”. Which ever way the semen is collected, the bull must have a desire to “mate”; this is the test of the bull’s libido. A bull with a low libido will donate less semen than a bull with a high libido. Bulls with low libido are unreliable semen producers and so, commercially, bulls with a high libido are required. Not only must bulls have high libidos, so that large quantities of semen are collected, but the semen must also have a high sperm count, so that fertility can be guaranteed. Only bulls with high libido and high sperm counts, that possess genes for high milk yield, good conformation and free from genetic defects are used in AI programmes.

The improvements seen in dairy cattle production could have been achieved without artificial insemination, but it would have taken much longer. Also, the improvements seen are not continuous. The first few generations in any carefully planned breeding programme will always show the greatest improvements. Thereafter, further improvement will be slight, and it must be realized that there is a finite limit to the physical expression of every genetically controlled trait. If the genes are not present in an individual, then it is impossible to express the character of those genes eg.,., you don’t breed rats from mice.

AI is not a cure for Infertility

By comparison, in the case of artificial insemination in budgerigars, semen is collected from cocks by human manipulation, and therefore libido is never tested. This is just one very serious drawback to the use of artificial insemination in budgerigars. If the budgerigar cock used for AI has a low sperm count, (how are you going to test for this?) then one would be procreating infertility into the stud. Artificial insemination is not a cure for infertility.

Now, with regard to the Budgerigar fancy, why should anyone want to use artificial insemination, because it would rapidly produce a stud of very close relatives, Wouldn’t you be tempted to mate your best cock to all your hens? In no time, you would only have very close relatives to mate with each other and you’ve always avoided that in the past. You would rapidly have very little variety, and unless you started with excellent stock you would produce mediocrity like peas in a pod. Also, if you have poor fertility in your stud, won’t you be promoting this as a feature,ultimately, within a few generations, making normal mating impossible within your stud? The end of your line!

In the meantime, how do you dispose of your unwanted stock? Of course, as usual, it is sold to someone else, and poor fertility will spread even further throughout the hobby. Surely, the breeding of exhibition budgerigars is a hobby and not an important commercial business worth billions of pounds. We are not trying to save a rare or endangered species; the breeding of exhibition budgerigars is a totally unnecessary pastime and we do it for the sheer pleasure and challenge of trying to produce the Ideal as described by our different Budgerigar societies.

Whilst the fancy is bemoaning the dwindling numbers of fanciers in the hobby, and trying to think of ways of recruiting new members, the use or the need to use artificial insemination as the means of reproducing budgerigars must surely be a big “turn-off” to any potential newcomer.

Each Budgerigar Society has its own rules and regulations; shouldn’t those rules include the rule of Mother Nature? Natural reproduction has served the budgerigar well for millions of years, why is there a need to change the rules?

It is not difficult to mate a randy cock with many hens over a short period of time; if he fills all the eggs with all of his mates, then you know that you are breeding for fertility at least, if nothing else. If such a fertile cock is also a decent exhibition bird, then you are making real progress. So why is there the need to use AI? Once artificial insemination is permitted within the hobby, how do you stop the sale of frozen semen? If frozen semen becomes widely available, then within no time the overall standard of budgerigars will improve rapidly, then where does the fancy go next? If all budgerigars look the same, how can competition take place? As it stands at present, there can only be one Best in Show, long may that be so.

If artificial insemination were permitted by the Budgerigar Society, then it would become the fashionable “thing to do” within the hobby. With the current problem of poor fertility being so prevalent, within a matter of a few years, fertility levels would drop even lower, even when using artificial insemination. The hobby of Exhibition budgerigar breeding would cease to exist. Artificial insemination will improve the “look” of the budgerigar as rapidly as it will simultaneously reduce the fertility, unless a breeding programme along the lines of that which has been followed for dairy cattle production, is used. In my opinion, most budgerigar breeders have been unwilling or unable to follow a sensible breeding programme in the past, by ignoring fertility as the most fundamental feature of any bird intended for future mating, and hence the problem of low fertility that prevails now. The use of artificial insemination as an attempt to solve the problem of infertility would be the final act of a drowning man clutching at straws.

Whilst the Budgerigar Society forbids artificial insemination, the crime is getting caught. No doubt, artificial insemination is currently practised on occasion by a few breeders. If those that do secretly practice artificial insemination are successful, then they would be successful without using the technique because they are following some planned breeding programme (including fertility) and that is their success. Those that use artificial insemination unsuccessfully, are architects of their own downfall, by their ignorance and folly. Whilst AI is forbidden by the Budgerigar Society, such fools can only suffer in silence, I think that is the best way.

Original text Copyright 1997, Dr John Pilkington

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