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The practice of artificial insemination (AI) as a method of reproducing farm animals has increased greatly over the last few decades.

The two main reasons for its popularity are:
It gives greater control over the quality of the progeny.
In some species (e.g. turkeys) genetic selection has resulted in birds unable to procreate naturally.

Legislation exists that affords minimal protection to animals undergoing AI. However, proper consideration has not been given to the significant degree of stress and suffering caused by this procedure.

Today’s Turkey Industry

The male breeding turkey (the stag, or tom) is now so heavy and broad-breasted that he is literally incapable of mounting the female (hen) turkey. Ruthless genetic selection for unnatural weight and breast muscle has resulted in birds with many health and welfare problems.

Designed to Suffer

Over the last four decades or so major breeding companies in the UK and in North America have developed a turkey hardly resembling its wild counterpart. Yet welfarists know that turkeys bred for the commercial market have lost none of their natural inclinations - only the possibility of fulfilling them. Breeding turkeys, and in particular the stags, suffer greatly from their unnatural size. A breeding stag can weigh approximately the same as an 8-9 year old child. The British Turkey Federation used to run an annual competition for the heaviest turkey. Happily this tradition has been abandoned; the last one, in 1989, was ‘won’ by a stag weighing in at 86lb. The gross weight of today’s adult male turkey can lead to painful leg deformities and to additional trauma at the time of slaughter.

How AI is Achieved in Turkeys

Semen Collection

“If the males are housed in individual floor cages, a team of two or three people is sometimes used: if two, one person to hold the legs and collect semen whilst the other massages (i.e. masturbates- Ed.) the male; if three, one man to hold, one man to milk the semen and another to collect the semen...The first stage in the milking of semen from the male is to get the phallus to protrude...The basic system is to manipulate both sides of the vent with the palms of each hand, causing the vent to open and the phallus to protrude. One hand then holds either side of the vent between finger and thumb to maintain the vent and the phallus in an open extruded position.” (For reference, see next section).

Inseminating the Hens

“Insemination is best achieved in the following way. The cannula (tube) containing the dose of semen is gently probed into the vagina along its horizontal axis until it meets resistance, due to a flexure of the vagina. Semen is ejected from the cannulae either by use of a small hypodermic syringe with an attached piece of rubber or plastic tubing, or a length of rubber tubing through which the operator blows. The latter is found to be a very convenient method and is commonly employed if the number of hens to be inseminated in a session is not so large that the inseminator suffers with a dry mouth.” (MAFF’s ADAS Reference Book 242, p. 39, Crown Copyright 1983).

The Stress of AI

Insemination is carried out at high speed. In its reference book 242 ‘Turkey Breeding and Husbandry’ MAFF estimates roughly half a minute to be spent on the operation per bird. MAFF also advises AI should be done ‘in the cool of the day’ to minimise the stress that would be compounded by heat. It seems that the only legislation touching on AI is found in The Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2000 under “Breeding procedures” para 28 (1) & (2). (1) States: “Subject to sub-paragraph (2), natural or artificial breeding or breeding procedures which cause, or are likely to cause, suffering or injury to any of the animals concerned shall not be practised. However, (2) continues: “Sub-paragraph (1) shall not preclude the use of natural or artificial breeding procedures that are likely to cause minimal or momentary suffering or injury or that might necessitate interventions which would not cause lasting injury.”

Published research has shown the bruising that can occur after “strokes” (i.e. the movements made by AI operators to induce ejaculation)1. In 1993, FAWN wrote to British United Turkeys, the US-based international turkey breeding company, to express concern. As a result, Mr Cliff Nixey of BUT (UK) wrote to Mr Bakst (one of the authors) at his Agricultural Research Center in Beltsville, Maryland. Mr. Nixey was assured that the procedures described in the paper were “extreme” and not typical of those used in the industry.

One is left to ponder the purpose of inflicting considerable pain and damage on stags, simply to demonstrate what does not, according to USDA, happen under normal conditions. The problem of pain associated with the collection of semen should not be dismissed.

Pain may be experienced by hens being inseminated: “Malfunctioning equipment can damage both the birds and the semen and also cause frustration for the staff...From personal experience of visiting farms to look at AI problems, a good indication that AI is normally done too fast and with not enough care is the response of the team to the visit. Just walking onto the farm often results in a slowing down of the rate of insemination and an increase in the number of hens re-inseminated... Sessions should not last too long. Staff concentration and keenness tend to drop off after two hours of insemination, leading to lower performance levels...In hot climates always inseminate during the coolest part of the day to reduce the risk of stressing both the birds and the staff.”2

Official Condemnation

The UK Government’s advisory body, the Farm Animal Welfare Council stated, “Large breeding stags which are used as grandparent stock to influence the genetic pool have the greatest potential for leg disorder... breeding practices adopted across the world make it inevitable that a small number of grandparent stags will be reared to extreme weights and sizes...We know of evidence that the older, heavy breeding stags may be affected by severe degenerative joint disease and experience pain during movement as a result...Culling should occur immediately a problem is manifest and breeding companies must not continue to collect semen once a stag shows signs of suffering.”3


Bakst, M.R. & Cecil, H.C., 1982. “Gross Appearance of Turkey Cloacae Before and After Single or Multiple Manual Semen Collection”. Poultry Science, 13.08.82.
Talking Turkeys, The magazine of British United Turkeys, Spring/Summer 1991, “Artificial Insemination - the Practical Approach” by Mike Brocklehurst.
The UK’s Farm Animal Welfare Council’s (FAWC) 1995 “Report on the Welfare of Turkeys”, paras 84 & 85.


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