There are a number of misconceptions about frozen semen that are pervasive in the horse breeding community and one of them relates to the relative costs of frozen vs. cooled semen. We have heard horror stories of mare owners spending thousands of dollars purchasing and then trying to get mares in foal with frozen semen only to end the season with an open mare. Then there are also stories of stallion owners investing large sums of money freezing semen that is of poor quality or doesn’t result in pregnancies. Many of these nightmares are the result of lack of quality control on the semen that is put on the commercial market and/or proficiency of the lab or technician that is freezing the semen. Poor quality semen, whether fresh, cooled or frozen will result in wasted money, empty mares and unhappy breeders. This article will present objective information on the true costs of using frozen semen so that stallion and mare owners can make informed decisions.
For the sake of this discussion let’s assume that we are dealing with good quality frozen or cooled semen that is processed by a professional laboratory experienced in semen preservation. I will use some average figures for sperm production and estimated costs for this illustration. Obviously, if a stallion produces a larger than average number of high quality sperm per collection, then the costs will be lower because more doses of frozen semen could be produced per collection. Alternatively, higher costs would be incurred for a stallion with low sperm production or marginal semen quality.
Cooled Semen Costs to Stallion Owner
The total cost to produce a foal from either cooled or frozen semen is the sum of the costs borne by the stallion owner in supplying the semen and the mare owner in its application. The cost to the stallion owner for cooled semen will depend on how and by whom the semen collection and processing is performed. A large breeding operation with multiple stallions may find it most economical to build a collection and semen processing facility and hire trained personnel to handle stallions and collect and process semen. The semen processing laboratory will also have to be equipped with appropriate equipment and supplies. This can represent a significant upfront investment by the stallion owner and is most practical when the farm stands several stallions that are breeding numerous mares. Remember too that horses are seasonal breeders therefore the trained staff that are hired to manage the collection and processing of semen must also be employed for the 4-5 months of the year when there is no foaling or breeding going on. A stallion owner could easily spend tens of thousands of dollars to properly set up even the most basic collection and processing facility for cooled semen. The laboratory requires an incubator, phase contrast microscope, water bath, sperm counter, semen collection and processing equipment and supplies such as AV’s, liners, collection bottles, microscope slides, semen extender, shipping containers, etc. and the breeding shed will need a breeding mount or phantom.
Alternatively, many stallion owners will contract with a collection facility and trailer their stallion to the facility for semen collection by appointment when a mare owner requests a shipment. In this case there is no investment in facility and equipment and the only staff required is to transport the stallion to the collection facility. In this scenario most stallion owners will pass on all of the costs associated with semen collection, processing and shipping directly to the mare owner so there is no upfront investment to recover. Shipping costs will be the same for both scenarios.
Frozen Semen Costs to Stallion Owner
For frozen semen, the costs to the stallion owner are easily calculated as the total cost for collection and processing the frozen semen, board at the freezing facility, health testing and semen storage. This is an upfront investment by the stallion owner whose costs for the frozen semen production must be recovered when the semen or breeding contracts are sold.
Mare Owner Costs
Use of a good reproductive veterinarian for mare management and insemination of either cooled or frozen semen is critical for optimum results. This is especially true for frozen semen when only a single dose of semen is available for insemination on a given heat cycle. It is equally critical with cooled semen when the quality is poor or the dose contains low numbers of motile sperm after cooling. The best results are obtained when insemination is timed to occur close to the time of ovulation and so frequent ultrasound examinations may be required. Many mare owners will send their mares into a clinic or reproductive management facility to make this easier. Round the clock, every six hour ultrasound examinations are not required if veterinarians employ modern reproductive management techniques such as ultrasound and hormonal manipulation of estrus and ovulation timing. Stallion owners can increase success rates and reduce costs by providing two doses per cycle so that mares can be managed at the home farm requiring only one veterinary examination per day just as with cooled semen. So with frozen semen, either the mare owner is spending more on veterinary care to check every six hours and wait for ovulation before inseminating a single dose or the stallion owner provides an additional dose of frozen semen per cycle and veterinary costs can be similar to cooled semen. Whether cooled or frozen semen is used the mare owner is typically responsible for shipping costs. Shipping costs for frozen semen are higher than for cooled semen but these increased costs may be offset by the fact that frozen semen can be ordered in advance and can contain multiple doses so missing a mare’s ovulation due to late delivery is avoided. Multiple mares at the same location can also all receive semen in a single shipment if the veterinarian or mare owner has a storage tank into which the semen can be transferred and stored until needed.
A critical point when discussing the economics of cooled and frozen semen is the relative efficiency of the two technologies. For this reason it is important to consider the “cost per usable insemination dose” when comparing them. Cooled semen will live 24 to 48 hours from the time of collection and so any semen produced by the stallion that is not used for insemination within 48 hours is wasted. For many stallions, especially early and late in the season, a collection is often made for one or two mares, each receiving two doses of semen. This can lead to erratic collection schedules which may result in less than optimum semen quality. One to two billion total sperm are typically included per dose of cooled semen. Mare owners are typically charged $250 to $400 to receive a standard overnight shipment of up to two doses of cooled semen. In some breeds stallion owners will charge an additional “chute fee” or handling fee that can be significant. Over the course of a breeding season, the average stallion will be collected and ship to two mares per collection. Therefore the semen production cost per usable dose for cooled semen may be as high as $75 to $100 per dose. For popular stallions with large books of mares or stallions that produce low sperm numbers, a single dose may only be available per cycle. Weekend collections, airline or rush shipments and repeated shipments in a single cycle will add to these costs.
For frozen semen, the stallion is placed on an optimum collection schedule for efficient production of good quality semen, typically 3-4 times per week. All semen that is collected is processed into doses and stored for future use and properly stored frozen semen may remain viable indefinitely. A typical dose of frozen semen contains 800 million to one billion total sperm.
So let’s examine the cost associated with breeding a book of 10 mares with frozen semen over 3 heat cycles. This illustration makes the following general assumptions with regards to sperm production and fertility for the “average” stallion:
Total sperm per collection = 8 billion (assume every other day collection schedule)
Normal sperm motility in fresh semen and good (commercially acceptable) retention of motility after freezing and thawing.
Per cycle conception rate for cooled semen = 60%
Per cycle conception rate for frozen semen = 50%
Semen production cost for 36 doses of usable semen:
Average 8 doses per freeze, therefore 5 freezes required to produce 40 doses.
Average cost per freeze = $500 x 5 freezes = $2500
Board for 2.5 weeks = $400
3 clean out collections x $150 each = $450
Total Cost = $3,350
Cost per usable dose = $84
Semen production costs per heat cycle = $168
Cost for 36 doses = $3,015
Semen production costs per pregnant mare = $377
So the true comparison is the cost per usable dose ($80-$85 for frozen semen and $75 - $100 for cooled semen) times the number of doses required per pregnancy.
In our example frozen semen required an average of 4.5 doses per pregnancy using a two-dose timed insemination protocol so the total cost per pregnant mare at 50% conception rate per cycle is $377.
Because of the slightly higher assumed conception rate for cooled semen (60% per cycle) only 32 doses of cooled semen are required (4 doses per pregnancy) to achieve the same number of pregnant mares. In this case the total cost per pregnant mare would be $300 for cooled semen. However, due to the random timing of the mare’s heat cycles it is likely that more than the minimum 8 collections are required to provide those 32 doses when needed for insemination adding to the overall cost per pregnant mare. As the size of the stallion’s book increases the economic inefficiency of cooled semen is reduced as less semen is wasted and more doses are used per collection.
This illustration should help to dispel the myth that breeding mares with frozen semen is a far more expensive technology reserved only for elite competition stallions or stallions standing abroad and that banking frozen semen from your stallion and using it to service a book of mares is a viable alternative and/or complement to shipping cooled semen.