When it comes to achieving greater conception rates, many factors play a role in the technician and producer reaching their goals. Factors including herd health, nutrition and environment all contribute to conception-rate successes and shortcomings. Proper semen handling is one of the few factors in artificial insemination (A.I.) that the reproductive technician has full control over.

Ellerbrock rick
Eastern U.S. Manager of Select Dairy Solutions / Select Sires Inc.

When training new technicians, the importance of proper semen storage, handling and the protection of thawed semen cannot be overstated. When any step in this process is completed improperly, it negatively impacts the chances of successful conception. If technicians take the proper time and care in the semen handling processes, they are setting themselves up for success. Would any professional want to give away potential conception rates unnecessarily?

For example, the technician has a 50% chance of conception through heat detection or timed A.I. protocols. If errors occur in the semen handling process, it is a conservative estimate that we lose another 10% of the chance of success. Losing 10% of potential pregnancies can be the difference between a profitable and unprofitable year for many of our hardworking producers. It is our duty as professionals to ensure we are giving our customers the best opportunity for sound reproductive management.

Scott Winchell, longtime professional technician and current technician supervisor, echoes the importance of proper semen storage and handling through our professional work together and when working with those he trains and manages. Listed below are some of the procedures and protocols that make his team successful and ensure that success is passed on to all involved, including, most importantly, the dairy producer.

  • Store the semen tank in a safe environment where it will remain clean and dry. Be sure to keep the tank elevated off concrete to avoid corrosion and possible failure. Check the nitrogen level in your tank regularly and work with your service provider to ensure the proper nitrogen level.
  • Always work below the frost line in the neck of the tank.
  • Know where and what is stored in the tank. Label canisters or keep an inventory to decrease the time spent searching for sires.
  • Use forceps to handle only the straws you want to be thawed.
  • Make sure straws are fully immersed in clean 95°F water for a minimum of 45 seconds.
  • Do not overload a thaw bath. Too many straws will decrease the water temperature.
  • Use a clean and dry paper towel to cover straws as they are dried fully. Dry and protect semen from cold shock.
  • Make sure the straw is positioned to the end of the sheath. If using sheaths with an insert, make sure the straw is properly seated. Failure to seat the straw properly will result in some semen being left in the sheath. Be careful to store sheaths out of direct sunlight. Direct heat can result in them becoming warped and damaged. Store sheaths packaged and sealed between each use.
  • Maintain semen temperature as close as possible to 95°F until the gun is placed inside the cow.
  • Once semen is thawed, you should deposit it within 15 minutes for 1/2 cubic centimeter (cc) straws and within 8 to 10 minutes for 1/4 cc straws for best results.
  • Cleanliness is key. Have clean hands and keep your equipment clean.

The basic practices in semen handling are taught to prospective technicians in A.I. training courses. These practices are what successful technicians use each day. Those who create good habits for semen handling are the ones who often garner the highest conception rates. I suggest making these practices a ritual.


Give yourself a consistent place to work. When everything has a place in a breeding kit or a cabinet it is easier to be consistent when it comes to the time it takes to prepare for breeding.

There are many ways to “skin the cat” when thawing semen, loading breeding guns and protecting them from cold shock, but when these procedures are repeated in the same manner for every breeding, it is less likely an important step or safeguard is missed.

Some other tools I suggest technicians consider include gun warmers, sheath protectors, kitchen timers and mercury thermometers.

Gun warmers can ensure the loaded A.I. guns remain around 95°F, the standard thawing temperature. Gun warmers require some maintenance, and their accuracy depends on cleanliness. However, when used and cared for properly, they can give the technician an added safeguard. The inner liners need to be removed and washed regularly to avoid contamination of loaded guns.

Using soft sheath protectors also helps keep the gun tip clean prior to insemination.

A kitchen timer, or the timer on your phone, is great for ensuring proper thawing time, ensuring the 45-second minimum is reached.

I advise technicians to keep a mercury thermometer in their kit to periodically check the electric-thaw bath or dial thermometer. Just because the light on the thaw bath is green, doesn’t mean the bath is 95°F. The thermostat may be malfunctioning, or the temperature setting may need adjustment. For those using a thaw bath in a vehicle, note that it is easy to exceed 95°F on a hot summer day. In these situations, it is highly important to double-check the water temperature.

Those doing their due diligence to minimize errors when handling frozen and thawed semen are always the best-performing and most respected people in the field. Proper semen handling may sound commonsensical to many; however, these are the factors that are often the easiest to overlook. The “devil is in the details” when it comes to great reproduction. Creating good habits with the keys discussed will translate to good results.

Semen handling is a factor technicians can control. It would be irresponsible and unprofessional not to take advantage of this control each breeding.