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Novel fertility device set to drive value for thoroughbred breeding

AgriFutures Australia and the University of Newcastle have developed a simple stallion fertility test device to help boost Australia’s billion-dollar thoroughbred breeding industry. They are now seeking investors and industrial partners with experience in plastic manufacturing to commercialise the solution.

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Words by Beverley Hadgraft

Breeding thoroughbreds is an expensive and uncertain process because unlike other livestock, thoroughbred foals can’t be registered unless they’re produced by natural conception (live cover), as opposed to artificial insemination. 

That keeps gene pools strong and prices high but if stallions are going through peaks and troughs of fertility or have poor sperm quality, covers may have to be repeated. This can mean extra travel for mares – sometimes interstate – loss of revenue for studs and health and safety implications for both handlers and horses. 

The industry needed a quick, simple, reliable and cheap method to test stallion fertility at the time of breeding, so mares could be covered again (‘cross-covered’) before being sent home. Now, thanks to years of R&D by a top team of specialists from the University of Newcastle and AgriFutures Australia, that’s now possible. 

The fertility test project was chosen for funding out of 52 submissions said Annelies McGaw, AgriFutures Thoroughbred Program Manager. “The main aim of the thoroughbred industry is to breed a winning foal and it’s currently averaging 1.5 to 1.8 covers per live viable foal. We want to minimise that because every time you re-cover a mare it’s a lot of work even though re-covering tends to be free. Each stallion has a set number of mares that they can physically cover within a year. That means if the stallion is re-covering mares for free, it isn’t making as much money, which is significant when you’re talking about $150,000 - $250,000 per serve.”

This new device is revolutionary; not only can it be used on-farm by anyone with minimal training, but in addition to the ‘classical’ indicators of fertility (motility, morphology and sperm count), it also provides feedback about sperm metabolic rate. 

Dr Zamira Gibb, lead researcher at the University of Newcastle’s Equine Fertility Research Group that co-developed the device with support from AgriFutures Australia, confirmed that, uniquely in horses, this is the most important predictor of a successful pregnancy. That’s because metabolism is not only important for motility but to facilitate the energy-demanding changes necessary to allow the fusion of sperm and egg.

RELATED: Dr Zamira Gibb - Lead Researcher, The University of Newcastle profile

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Each day of age is worth US$160 at yearling sales

If mares can be re-covered immediately and breeders don’t have to wait for a second cycle, it increases the chance of successful, earlier pregnancies and more valuable foals.

The older a horse is at yearling sales or age-related races, the better it performs. “One study we referenced showed that each day of age is worth US$160 at yearling sales,” said Dr Gibb.

At present, there are up to 25,000 serves conducted within Australia’s 660 stud farms each year. Although measuring devices for sperm motility and quantity are available, the best are expensive – up to $50,000 plus – and often need to be operated by vets who may be some distance away.

The university’s device should retail at around $5,000 and with the help of funding from AgriFutures Australia, Dr Gibbs’ team has refined operations to make it as foolproof as possible. 

RELATED: No horsing around when it comes to equine fertility

There’s nothing else like it on the market.

Results available in just 30 minutes

The test involves collecting a drop of dismount semen into a pot. This is then placed into the shoebox-sized device. Users press a button and a pre-loaded cartridge, with a specially developed medium, is lowered into the semen. The sperm swims up into that medium and 30 minutes later, when it’s had time to react, a reading is available. 

As mares are generally brought to stud 24 hours before expected ovulation, there is still time to re-cover the mare should the device indicate that this is necessary. Dr Gibb’s research team of 10 PhD students and two research assistants have also found that heat stress affects stallion fertility, so the ability to allow time for the stallion to cool down between covers is an additional necessary step to optimising fertility.

This device would also be useful for identifying periods of sub-fertility in stallions, that are susceptible to heat stress; a phenomena which has also been identified by Dr Gibb’s research team.  

Ms McGaw said the project already had 10 years of research behind it when AgriFutures came on board in 2018. “It just needed a bit more help to kick it over the line.”

A final prototype of the device will be in studs by the end of August. Once the breeding season is over, Dr Gibb will be analysing data and taking feedback from breeders. 

Investor and industrial partners with experience in plastic manufacturing sought

At present the sample cartridges used within the device are being made using 3D printers by the University of Newcastle’s physics department. This is an expensive process, which is not a commercially viable option going forward, as Dr Gibb anticipates that the single-use cartridges will be marketed at around $5-$10 each. 

“We’re looking for an industrial partner who can do injection moulding [a manufacturing process for producing parts] and build a fairly simple mechanical device under the direction of what we’ve already developed,” Dr Gibb explained.

Australia has the second largest thoroughbred breeding industry in the world, worth more than $1.16 billion per year. However, since thoroughbreds in every country can only breed through natural conception, where a stallion physically covers a mare (live cover), Ms McGaw believes the device has worldwide implications. 

“The studs here have the same issues as they do in Kentucky or Newmarket and no-one has a really good stall side idea of stallion fertility.”

The test is currently only suitable for horses since stallions’ sperm rely on sperm mitochondria which is unusual in mammalian species. However, there are some other animals, such as rams and bulls, where it could be useful with revisions. 

The University of Newcastle and AgriFutures are currently in discussions about intellectual property and are seeking commercial partners and intend licensing the device to interested parties. Ms McGaw has already been fielding calls. 

“It really lends itself to a vet medicine or human medicine company,” she said. 

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