Unless your farm is equipped with expensive, nonportable, high-tech equipment, qualifying semen for artificial insemination operations likely involves a lot of guesswork. A new computer-based program working off an electronic tablet (iPad), however, is bringing reliable information about concentration, motility, and other critical semen aspects right into the breeding barn, according to Belgian researchers. In fact, its results run close to those you’d get with the higher-priced gold standard equipment.
“It’s amazing how parallel the two systems are, meaning you can rely on the mobile system as much as the fixed laboratory system (for real-time results),” said Peter Daels, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ECAR, ACT, of the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine at Gent University in Merelbeke, Belgium.
A new study carried out by Gent University and the De Morette Equine Reproduction Center in Asse, Belgium, showed that the “iSperm” system provided stallion sperm analysis results in the field that were within 10% of the results obtained by AndroVision and NucleoCounter SP‐100 laboratory devices. These fixed devices aren’t portable and cost upward of 20,000 euros ($23,000).
“There are only a couple in all of Belgium, and worldwide they’re usually only found in specific laboratories and large breeding centers,” Daels said.
The iSperm, however, works with an iPad and an app, bringing the cost and portability within reason for use in breeding farms or by veterinarians working with breeders, he explained.
Other portable sperm analysis equipment exists, but with significant limitations, he said. A simple light microscope and a hemocytometer can give concentration information, for example, but the technique is “time-consuming and often not practical in the field,” the researchers reported. Other devices can calculate sperm concentration through measuring optical density, but that only works with fresh semen because extenders (used for storing cooled and frozen semen) distort the data. Checking motility under a light microscope is possible, but it requires significant training, and it’s not objective—meaning it depends on each user’s impressions rather than on concrete data.
As for the nonportable equipment, the NucleoCounter measures concentration by evaluating dye-stained DNA in sperm with the help of an electronic system. AndroVision and other computer‐assisted semen analysis (CASA) systems give detailed data about concentration and motility, among other aspects.
While iSperm underwent testing by its manufacturer at the time of its release, it hadn’t been studied in the equine field by independent research teams until now, said Daels. In their study, he and his fellow researchers first compared concentration measurements from 33 straws of frozen stallion semen by NucleoCounter and iSperm Equine (app version: Eq 4.10.4). They then checked total motility and progressive motility of 10 stallion sperm samples using iSperm and AndroVision.
While they found minor differences in readings between iSperm and the “gold standards” in stallion sperm analyses, these differences were “acceptable” and would not make readings less reliable in a field setting, said Daels. The iSperm system also has the benefit of low cost and practicality, making it possible for more breeding farms to benefit from immediate sperm analysis.
Meanwhile, their work allowed them to give feedback to the manufacturers to improve collection and analysis techniques, he added.
However, iSperm lacks the capacity to maintain data over the long-term, he said. It can’t store and print out readings a year later, for example.
“Overall, this is a very user-friendly and intuitive system with minimal technical challenges,” Daels said. “It easily and reliably gives indications about whether the semen survived the trip or if it had been maintained at the right temperature. And in the context of popular stallions whose ejaculate has to be split into different shipments, it’s useful to confirm that the stallion owner sent mare owners the right concentration.”
Having access to objective data removes guesswork as well as simple differences of opinion about quality, he added.
“When breeders receive shipped semen, they’d like to look at that and check the quality,” said Daels. “Good microscopes are expensive and give subjective results. This iPad-based system lets breeders have an objective measurement, so they can call the person who shipped the semen and give clear data about what they’re seeing. In the end this is giving crucial data, and we were asking ourselves, ‘Okay, this is cheaper, but is it accurate?’ And in the end, we were pretty impressed.”