The small ruminant industry (sheep and goats in particular) in North America is relatively small both in numbers and in economic impact when compared to other livestock commodities such as cattle, pigs and horses. However in many other parts of the world sheep and goats are very important, both economically and culturally. This has led to a dramatic increase in inquiries regarding live animal and frozen germplasm (semen and embryos) exports from Canada to many countries around the world. The international agricultural community regards Canada as having a relatively low risk of disease, and as producing some of the best genetics available worldwide. There is a demand for high producing meat and milk genetics from both sheep and goats.
There is an inherent risk of disease transmission and also a very high monetary cost associated with the transportation of live animals to other countries. Because of this, the shipment of frozen embryos and semen has become an economically viable option as a way to market genetics around the world. Thousands of doses of semen, and frozen embryos can be shipped virtually anywhere that airplanes can land. The only limitations to this is that the importing country must have an official import protocol negotiated with the CFIA (Canadian Food Inspection Agency), and that the germplasm was frozen under the appropriate government and regulatory restrictions in Canada. The importing country must initiate protocols, and each country's government will negotiate with the CFIA independently. Frozen or fresh semen for distribution anywhere in Canada, and frozen semen for export to any other country must be processed by a CFIA certified quarantine facility, specifically licensed for sheep and goats. Embryos that are frozen for sale must be processed by a CETA (Canadian Embryo Transfer Association) certified team.   Artificial insemination and embryo transfer programs are also an important component of the international and domestic sheep industries and can be an economic, and biosecure way of introducing new and elite genetics into a flock.

For some importing countries on-farm collection and processing of the embryos in a mobile lab is acceptable, but for others the embryo donors must also be quarantined for a specific length of time in a CFIA certified facility. OC Flock Management has the only facility that meets these requirements, for the export of semen and embryos in Western Canada.

Although artificial insemination (AI) in sheep is a relatively simple procedure, it is not as straight forward as AI in cattle. The anatomy of the ewe's cervix does not allow for easy penetration with an AI gun. This means that semen can be deposited at the opening to the cervix, but it is very difficult to pass through the cervix and deposit semen directly into the uterus, as is the common technique in cows. Our veterinarian therefore carries out AI in sheep via laparoscopic surgery. The ewe is sedated and restrained in a cradle on her back. The abdominal wall is prepped for surgery and the cradle is tipped up so that her head is downward. Two small holes are made in the abdominal wall, close to the udder. One is for the laparoscope, so the surgeon can visualize the uterus, and the second hole is for the AI pipette to be inserted and the semen is placed directly into the uterus through a fine needle. The entire procedure usually takes just a few minutes and the ewe is quickly back on her feet and ready to eat. Either fresh or frozen semen can be used for laparoscopic AI. AI is the most efficient way to rapidly disseminate genetics from elite rams across many flocks. It greatly reduces the risk of disease transmission and frozen semen can be shipped safely virtually anywhere in the world.

Embryo transfer (ET) programs are used by producers for several reasons. Most commonly is to rapidly increase the flock numbers of genetically elite animals.

ET can also be used to salvage genetics from flocks with diseases such as OPP (Maedi-Visna) and CL as these are not transferred via properly handled embryos, when transplanted into clean recipients. Preservation of rare genetics, or valuable bloodlines for future use can also be done. ET requires a serious commitment from the producer, as the timing of drug administration, and attention to detail is essential. The donor ewes are synchronized using progesterone sponges, or a similar product. They are given twice-daily injections of hormones for 4 days to super stimulate their ovaries, which result in the ovulation of many eggs, rather than the usual 2 or 3. The ewes are then either bred naturally or by laparoscopic AI depending on the ram power available and the ram to be used. Embryos are surgically removed 6 days later. This is a full surgical procedure and requires a general anesthetic for the safety of the ewe. The embryologist then sorts and grades the embryos according to stage of development and quality. They can either be frozen, or transferred into recipient (surrogate) ewes, that have been synchronized to be at the same stage of their cycle as the donor ewes. The same procedure is used for goats.

For more information on what is involved to set up an AI or ET program at your farm please contact our office. Program costs are quoted individually depending on the number of donors, and location of the farm.