University researchers have developed a cheap, easy-to-use device which gives Thoroughbred stallion owners more bucks for their bang.
The device not only provides information about the "classical" indicators of fertility (motility, morphology and sperm count) it also provides feedback about a stallion's sperm metabolic rate.
The University of Newcastle's equine fertility research group's lead researcher Dr Zamira Gibb said the sperm metabolic rate was the most important predictor of a successful pregnancy in horses.
The research group co-developed the device with support from AgriFutures Australia.
The $1.6 billion annual Thoroughbred breeding industry in Australia is booming - along with horse racing - and leading stallions now command service fees upwards of $200,000.
For example, I Am Invincible stands for $220,000 at Yarraman Park stud near Scone in the NSW Hunter Valley.
So studmasters are keen for their top stallions to serve as many mares as possible during the breeding season (only natural mating is allowed in the Thoroughbred industry).
Mares which fail to get in foal have to be re-served which can mean extra travel and a loss of revenue for studs.
The industry needed a quick, simple, reliable and cheap method to test stallion fertility at the time of serving so mares could be covered again before being sent home.
"The main aim of the thoroughbred industry is to breed a winning foal and it's currently averaging 1.5 to 1.8 covers per live viable foal," AgriFutures Thoroughbred program manager Annelies McGaw said.
"We want to minimise that because every time you re-cover a mare it's a lot of work even though re-covering tends to be free.
"Each stallion has a set number of mares that they can physically cover within a year.
"That means if the stallion is re-covering mares for free, it isn't making as much money, which is significant when you're talking about $150,000 to $250,000 per serve."
Dr Gibb said if mares can be re-covered immediately and breeders don't have to wait for a second cycle it increased the chance of successful, earlier pregnancies and more valuable foals.
The older a horse is at yearling sales or age-related races, the better it performs.
"One study we referenced showed that each day of age is worth $US160 at yearling sales," she said.
At present there are up to 25,000 serves conducted within Australia's 660 stud farms each year.
Although measuring devices for sperm motility and quantity are available, the best are expensive - up to $50,000-plus - and often need to be operated by vets who may be some distance away.
The university's device should retail at around $5000 and Dr Gibb's team has refined operations to make it as foolproof as possible.
The test involves collecting a drop of dismount semen into a pot.
This is then placed into the shoebox-sized device. Users press a button and a pre-loaded cartridge, with a specially developed medium, is lowered into the semen.
The sperm swims up into that medium and 30 minutes later, when it's had time to react, a reading is available.
Dr Gibb's research team of 10 PhD students and two research assistants have also found that heat stress affects stallion fertility, so the ability to allow time for the stallion to cool down between covers is an additional necessary step to optimising fertility.
A final prototype of the device will be in studs by the end of August. Once the breeding season is over, Dr Gibb will be analysing data and taking feedback from breeders.
"We're looking for an industrial partner who can do injection moulding (a manufacturing process for producing parts) and build a fairly simple mechanical device under the direction of what we've already developed," Dr Gibb said.
Anybody interested in exploring a partnership can click on the link below.
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