Breeding cows and heifers the same way, every time, is really one of the keys to a successful breeding project. Consistency means less variables, and that's important for when you review a project to see what could be improved upon or what went well. If everything was done consistently, then you have a starting point for change.
When we breed cattle, my job is to thaw the bull semen. I think it surprises some people when they find out that I don't breed. I could if I needed to in a pinch, but the guys are much more proficient at it than I am. My job is to thaw and keep track of paperwork and flow. Records are really important when you're AI'ing, because it's important to know what semen was put in what cow on what date and by what technician.
Since we're out breeding a large group of heifers today (hooray for vacation days off of work!) I thought I'd tell you about what I keep in my AI kit.
A well stocked AI kit is helpful to have going into the breeding season. Since we breed in the fall, winter & spring our kit stays stocked year-round. Right now, if you were to open our kit, you'd find:
CITO Thaw Unit
Pens & Sharpies
Syringes & Needles
Small Bottle of Lube
70% Alcohol & Pipe Cleaners
Plastic Breeding Gloves & Latex Gloves
I thought I'd touch on just a few preferences I have regarding the above - brands, types, why we use things, etc.
CITO Thaw Units - These units come in both 12 volt and 110 volt models. We have two of each, and use them according to what power source is available at a project. If 110 volt power is available, we prefer to use it because we think the power is more consistent, which creates a more consistent water temperature. Our AI barn has both 110 and 12 volt power, so we can plug either thaw unit into the barn, and when I thaw out of my pickup I have to use a 12 volt.
If I'm thawing for a more than 2 breeders, I will use two thaw units to help maintain temperature consistency. The more frequently you drop straws into a thaw unit, the more it has to work to keep the temperature up. So if I'm thawing three units at once over and over in the same unit, more often than not the unit will drop below ideal temperature. If I use two thaw units, I can either thaw two straws in one, and a single straw in the other (what I prefer) or thaw three straws at once, and then thaw the next three straws in the other unit the next time to give my first unit a chance to warm back up. This all goes back to our theory of maintaining consistency throughout the entire project.
*Whatever type of thaw unit you use, make sure that you don't ever allow the water in the unit to freeze. For example, when you leave the AI kit in your pickup over night in December because you forgot to bring it in after breeding fall heifers in sub-freezing temperatures and the water freezes into a solid block, it's kind of an expensive mistake to make. Don't ask me how I know this. ;)
AI Guns - We prefer to use the Continental Plastics All-2-Mate Barb Style guns. I've loaded a lot of straws of semen over the past few years, and this is by far my favorite AI gun. The guys like to use them in the cow too, since they're sturdy (like an O-Ring gun) but lightweight (like a Combi-Gun). They are just a really well made AI gun. They're also fast to load, hold the sheath securely in place (without fiddling with an O-ring) and load either a 1/4 or 1/2 cc straw.
*If you use the guns above, you'll order the unslit sheaths with the blue inserts.
Thermometers - I use two types of thermometers. One is the plastic card type thermometer that usually comes with the thaw unit. These are good for knowing the general water temperature, however I do not rely on this type of thermometer to know my exact water temperature. I mainly use this to "divide" the thaw unit area into two parts to help keep track when I'm thawing different straws of semen.
Every year I buy a new, digital thermometer to guage water temperature. I figure $10 to know exactly how warm your water is to the tenth of a degree, is money well spent. I buy mine from Wal-Mart, in the kitchen supply aisle. I don't keep this thermometer in the water the entire time I'm thawing, but I will check the water before I start and then periodically throughout the project to make sure my thaw unit is running correctly.
Digital Timer - I thaw my units of semen for 45 seconds, and use a digital timer to keep track of that. There's enough going on when we're breeding that if I can take my focus off of one area (counting to myself in my head to 45), then that frees up some mental capacity to focus on other items like keeping records, or making sure the right unit of semen gets into the right cow. Our friend Mike actually gave me my first timer, and it's been one of best gifts I've ever received. I had to buy a new one this year, and I bought it from our local Cash & Carry restaurant supply store - a good timer will cost you about $15 and they're worth every penny.
Paper Towels - Costco half sheets are the best paper towel on the market. Period. Trust me, we've tried them all. I use 2 half sheets folded together to dry the straws off after they come out of the water bath, and the guys like to use a single half sheet to wipe the cow before they insert the AI gun. The first year we AI'ed cows, everyone had a different paper towel preference, but now we all use the same one and it makes stocking the AI barn a lot easier.
CITO Cutter vs. Scissors - Everyone that thaws semen has a personal preference here - and depending on the type of AI gun you use, that can dictate which method of cutting works best. I prefer to use a CITO cutter, and I don't find any seating issues when we use the barb style AI guns. I also think a CITO cutter is faster, and when they're cleaned regularly (that's what the alcohol & pipe cleaners are for, along with cleaning the AI guns) I think they're just as sanitary as a pair of scissors. I also buy a few new CITO cutters every breeding season, and keep them sealed in a Ziploc sack when I'm not using them and I think that helps keep them clean as well. We do keep a pair of scissors in the AI kit though, just in case.
Ziplocs - This past year I started keeping Ziploc sacks (both sandwich size and one gallon) size in the AI kit. I use the small ones to keep a few spent straws from each breeding project. That way if there's ever a question of semen quality, we have some of the straws saved. I label these bags with a Sharpie. I use one big Ziploc to store my timer, CITO cutter, pens and small AI book - that way if my thaw unit tips over, the water spilled won't get on these items.
Pens & Sharpies - If you don't have a Sharpie in your AI kit, you should get one. I bet you'll be amazed by how often you use it. I always make sure I have one, and have a back up one in my pickup and in my purse.
Gloves - The guys prefer to use latex gloves on both hands, and then put a breeding glove up on their left arm. Yes, their hands get sweaty, but if a cow craps on them while they're breeding, it's a lot easier to just pull the glove off and put a new one on, versus trying to find somewhere to wash their hands.
Needles & Syringes - Usually when we're giving GnRH shots, we use an automatic syringe, but I keep a small 3cc syringe and clean needles in the AI kit just in case. We keep bigger boxes of needles & the automatic syringes in a big tote that stays in the breeding barn.
Lube - We buy gallons of AI lube by the case, and keep those in our basement or in the AI barn (there's a special holder for the gallons) but we also keep a small squeeze bottle filled with lube just in case. It always comes in handy when you're breeding just a handful of cows, and don't want to bring out the lube. Lube, just like the water in your CITO thaw, shouldn't ever be frozen. It really changes the consistency.
Tweezers - You'll notice that I don't have tweezers on my list, and that's because I don't use them. I think I can pull straws faster with my fingers (which means that the canes of semen are exposed for less time) and find that in the instances I did use tweezers (like when my fingers were raw from multiple days of pulling straws) I was more likely to drop a unit. Now, I just make sure I have bandaids and if my fingers are raw, I just deal with it. If you use tweezers, and it works for you - that's great.
AI Gun Warmer - This isn't necessarily something we keep inside the AI kit, but it is something that we use every time we breed a cow. Even if we're just breeding one, we'll still use a gun warmer. These are kind of spendy, but again it all comes back to consistency - if we can maintain the temperature as consistently as we can from the time the unit of semen is pulled from the tank until it gets inside the cow - all the better.
And the last - most IMPORTANT - thing to have in your AI Kit is.....
Lol. Or is that just me.....?
So that's what is in our AI kit!
Is there anything I'm missing? If so, please leave your thoughts in the comments - I'd love to hear what you do differently, or a brand that works well for you!