by: Heather Smith Thomas

Occasionally a bull will be seriously injured or must be put down, and the owner might want semen collected from that bull. Ernest Bailes, a reproductive specialist located north of Houston, Texas, has collected bulls with all types of injuries such as broken legs (even with bones sticking out), broken backs, and also does post mortem semen extraction.

Bailes has been a registered embryologist for the past 11 years and has one of only 7 semen collection facilities registered in the state of Texas, through the National Association of Animal Breeders. His is the only mobile lab in the U.S. that is fully automated for semen processing—for collection, processing and leaving the frozen straws of semen with the rancher.

“If you want to collect from an injured bull, the key factor is speed. Timing is critical -- the sooner the better. I can't stress enough how important it is that the collection be done prior to any fever or swelling/inflammation from the injury, especially from spinal and back injuries. If you can get the bull into a hydraulic chute so he can't go down, or to help support him if he has a broken leg--to get the weight off that leg—that helps. The other thing that's nice about a hydraulic chute is that you can fully restrain the bull and prevent him from further injuring himself, especially if you're going to try to repair a broken leg or see if you can give the animal time to heal,” says Bailes.

He deals with a lot of rodeo stock and sees all types of injuries, and every extreme. “But if you collect those bulls quickly, within the first 12 to 24 hours—regardless of the extent of injury—as long as they were reproductively viable prior to the injury there is usually not a problem in getting a good collection,” he explains.

Usually when a bull gets hurt, the rancher's immediate thought is to treat the bull. Semen collection is often an afterthought. Some drugs used in treatment, however (such as dexamethasone which is often given as an anti-inflammatory to help reduce swelling and inflammation), will have a negative impact on semen quality. It's wise try to collect the bull before treatment is started.

It's best if you can collect him once, shortly after the injury, if it can be done without causing the bull any further injury. Fever is another thing that can make a bull go temporarily sterile, so you also want to try to collect him prior to onset of fever.

Bailles collected one bucking bull that suffered injury in one of the back pens while fighting, after a bucking event. Another bull he collected suffered a spinal injury during a rodeo event at Las Vegas. “The bull's hind feet actually went over his head in that accident. His owners were hoping the injury wasn't long-term and had him on a high daily dose of dexamethasone for 14 days, before I was called in for a collection. After consulting with the veterinarian overseeing the treatment, we decided to temporarily postpone the collection,” says Bailes.

“They took the bull off dexamethasone and he went downhill fast and could not stand up. Four days later I collected the bull twice via electro-ejaculation (24 hours apart) while he was lying on his side, sedated. They ended up having to euthanize the bull. We then removed his testicles for post-mortem semen extraction. Even though that bull had been on high dosages of dexmethasone for that long, and had extensive injury, we still were able to get good quality, viable semen from the bull.”

In another case a rancher with an injured bull called Bailes immediately. “They were able to actually get the bull into the hydraulic chute and we collected him and got more than 200 units of semen. We all thought the bull would recover, but after the severity of injury set in, he went down and they had to euthanize him three days later. This is why it's better to collect a bull sooner than later.”

Some bulls he is called to euthanize and do post-mortem collection. A post-mortem semen collection is not difficult, if the bull dies or must be euthanized before he can be collected. “The testicles are removed in the scrotum. You cut and tie off the spermatic cords. The intact testicles (inside the scrotum, with the cords tied off), are placed inside a zip-lock bag. This can be put into a small Igloo cooler with three to four inches of ice in the bottom of the cooler. A bath towel can be folded to create a three to four inch buffer zone between the ice and the testicles. You could also use folded cardboard or wadded up newspaper, but most people have a towel available and it's usually the easiest. The testicles are placed on top of the towel,” he explains.

The unit is then sealed and delivered or shipped overnight for priority a.m. delivery. “You don't want to put the ice in the bottom of the cooler until you are ready to put the testicles in it, and you always need a buffer between them and the ice. You want to slow-cool the testicles in the cooler, to prevent cold shock—which would kill any viable sperm cells that are still within the epididymis. The tail of the epididymis can be dissected off and flushed. A bull typically stores two to three ejaculations of viable semen in the tail of the epididymis,” says Bailes.

“Viable sperm cells with this type of collection will have a higher incidence of what we call medial cytoplastic droplets and immature sperm cells. Even so, you can get viable semen from that collection, and this can be successful anywhere from 12 to 24 hours post-mortem,” he explains.

The sooner the better, especially since outdoor temperature can have an affect. “If it's a mild or cool day, you have a much better chance of getting viable semen (for a longer period) after the bull dies than if it's a hot or very cold day. If it's 10 to 20 degrees below body temperature, this is all right because it starts the gradual cooling process. If you can get to the animal prior to rigor mortis setting in, you have a pretty good chance of being able to salvage the semen,” says Bailes.

At severely cold temperatures a semen collection can still work if the bull is still alive, or if you witness the accident. “You could go ahead and remove the testicles and the semen will be fine. But if the bull has been lying on the snow awhile and the testicles are stuck to the snow, there will be only a slim chance.” The sperm cells will be dying.

Mid-summer can be tricky if weather is hot. “I actually had one bull delivered to the back of my trailer on a fork-lift and he'd been dead about 4 hours, but I was still able to get viable semen. Ranchers also need to know they have a better chance of obtaining viable sperm cells if the bull died from an injury rather than from natural causes, because his body wasn't stressed prior to the injury,” says Bailes. With an injury, the bull merely had short-term stress, but was not in declining health.

The main thing is to do it sooner than later, before any inflammation and swelling, since fluid starts to accumulate internally after an injury. “If it's a testicle injury or an injury to the hindquarters, these tissues start to retain fluid. Fluid will also be retained in the scrotum, and will have an adverse impact on the body's ability to properly thermo-regulate the testicles and keep them at proper temperature,” he explains.

The rancher should have a plan in mind for emergencies, if the need ever arises to collect an injured or recently deceased bull. “Most large-animal veterinarians will have the capability of processing the testicles post-mortem. If the rancher is unable to remove the testicles and needs help doing this, it would be best to call their veterinarian first, and then contact us or some other facility that processes semen. I've helped walk several veterinarians through the process on the phone, so they can prep and salvage the testicles and maintain them until someone is able to process them,” he says. A local veterinarian might be able to do the first step, then send the testicles to a facility that does this. The semen would then be frozen and stored like regular semen.

“With post-mortem semen, however, it must be identified as such and printed on the straws. In the post-mortem processing, evaluation parameters would be different. You would not be as critical of the semen from a bull collected and processed post-mortem as you would from a bull that was collected normally and could be checked again later. The post-mortem collection is your last possible opportunity to salvage any genetic potential from that bull, so if there's any chance the semen would settle a cow you'd probably use it,” he explains.

Instructions for post-mortem handling of semen are on his website: www.reproselect.com

SIDEBAR: COSTS – There are no set figures for this service. Collecting an injured bull will vary greatly in cost, depending on the type of injury, whether sedation is needed, and the location of the ranch—whether the bull can be brought to a reproductive clinic or must be collected on-farm. If the reproductive specialist must drive a long way to collect a bull, this would cost more than if a set of testicles can be delivered to his facility by the client.

SIDEBAR: BREEDERS' EXPERIENCES – Terry Williams, a bucking bull breeder in eastern Texas, had the misfortune of losing a good bull several years ago. The accident happened while the bull was performing in a rodeo. “The bull was seriously injured and down, and we weren't able to collect him while he was down. A person from the reproduction company we work with removed the testicles when we euthanized the bull, and we were able to obtain the semen,” says Williams. “This was a freak accident, but we chose to try to get the semen. He was bucking at Forth Worth, and we transported the bull to Texas A&M to have the testicles removed.”

David Bailey, an Oklahoma breeder, had a good bull that broke his back. “The vet came and took some semen from the bull while he was still alive, even though the bull was down. He tranquilized the bull and extracted semen, then euthanized the bull. If you have an experienced vet, you can often get semen from a bull in the first day or two after an injury,” says Bailey. “Sometimes you might get 50 to 150 straws from that bull, depending on how fertile he is, and how much semen he has, but this is something you'd have to do pretty quickly,” he says. “On the bull that broke his back, we were able to get 80 straws from him. We were pleased, because he wasn't a complete loss.”

Sammy Andrews, a breeder in northeastern Texas, has had several instances in which bulls were injured and collected. “We had them at the veterinary facility anyway, to deal with the injury. The ones we've done were because of a broken leg. The people who collect semen just came over to the clinic and collected the bull. That way, in case treatment for the broken leg didn't work, you still have the semen,” says Andrews.

“Even if the bull recovers, there's no guarantee he'll be able to breed cows again. We have a bull right now that we spent a lot of money on, trying to get his leg fixed. Collecting semen from a bull immediately after an injury is good insurance, a good back-up if he doesn't recover, and the semen quality is usually good,” says Andrews.

Dr. Gary Warner, a veterinarian in Elgin, Texas, works with a lot of bulls, primarily bucking bulls. He's collected many injured bulls that have had limb fractures, primarily hind leg fractures. “During the process of evaluating the injury, most of these bulls are heavily sedated. While they are sedated we collect semen for processing,” says Warner. In a few instances the rancher/breeder has removed the testicles from a bull that died or had to be euthanized, and brought the testicles in to his clinic, rather than transport the dead bull.

Collecting an injured bull is similar to a routine semen collection, except more care may be needed in restraining the bull. “Some bulls with limb or back injuries (where we need to harvest the semen to obtain the genetics because we don't know what the outcome of the injury might be), we may put the bull on a hydraulic tilt table and sedate him for collection, so we don't injure him further,” says Warner.

Bulls can easily break a leg while fighting. “It's generally not the fighting itself that's so dangerous, but accidents happen when a third bull hits one of the fighting bulls in the hind legs when they are braced and pushing,” says Andrews. An older bull, you may have already collected and have semen from him, but with a young bull you may not have done this yet, so it's wise to have a plan for any possible emergency.

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