HAMMOND — As a kid, Justin Luther recalls always striving to lead better sheep into the show ring at the fair.
During his junior year in college, he developed an interest in laparoscopic artificial insemination, or lap AI, and determined that it could be a promising way for sheep producers to improve show lamb genetics.
He learned the procedure in-depth while attending graduate school at North Dakota State University, and while on staff there, trained veterinarians in lap AI.
“Right away, there were producers who wanted to bring new genetics into their flock or their herd,” he said. “There was a demand for the procedure.”
It wasn’t until 2009, after he took a job at UW-River Falls, that he began offering lap AI services out of a small garage on his farm south of Hammond.
Last spring, his business took a big leap forward with the opening of a new facility designed to better meet the needs of sheep, goat and white-tailed deer breeders.
“As demand for the service increased, we needed to build a facility with some efficiencies,” he said. “I wanted something where I could say, ‘Come over and I’ll meet you out there and we’ll get started.’ ”
Designed to his own specifications, Reproductive Services LLC is “a 4-H project that has grown into something beyond my dreams,” said Luther, an animal science professor at UW-River Falls, who has become something of an international authority on lap AI, having worked with breeders in places such as Nepal, Scotland and Mexico.
“It comes back to my passion for teaching,” he said.
Lap AI, during which the semen in placed directly into the uterine horns during a minimally invasive surgery, has grown in popularity over the past decade, and Luther’s homegrown business reflects that trend.
“I was surprised that just by building a new building and activating a Facebook account I just about doubled the amount of business I had,” he said.
Demand for lap AI in sheep, goats and deer will only increase, he said, as producers become more comfortable with the technique, as well as estrus synchronization.
“More and more people have five to 20 ewes but can’t justify spending money the top breeders are asking for their top breeder bucks,” he said. “This gives them the opportunity to use frozen, thawed semen and introduce new genetics.”
The technique appeals mostly to producers who want to generate stock for breeding or show, he said. It’s usually not feasible for commercial sheep flocks, who are better served buying a ram to meet market needs.
With lambing season getting underway, this is Luther’s offseason. Sheep breeding picks up in earnest between late-July and late-September, while deer AI extends into November.
“If I have (student) advising time in the fall, those are busy times,” he said.
Luther said most of his demand comes from sheep producers, and he breeds a few hundred females each year. He also works with a couple hundred deer and about 100 goats annually. He said he’s seen a lot of growth among non-traditional sheep breeds and producers for certain markets.
Jugging full-time employment at the university, he does most of his AI work on weekends and evenings. Typically, producers come to his facility, but in the case of very large numbers or with deer, he goes to the farm.
Luther said most of his clients are from Wisconsin and Minnesota, but he also has traveled to Texas, Nebraska and Missouri for jobs and has had requests for semen from his rams as far as both U.S. coasts.
He collects semen from his own rams as well as from those owned by other producers, if there’s interest in that sire. Semen is examined for motility, concentration, abnormal cells and other factors, then extended, typically down to 200 to 300 million cells per milliliter.
Fresh semen is good for 72 hours, he said, but it can be chilled for longer shelf life. He ships some semen to Ohio State University and Great Lakes Sire Service in Michigan, where it’s packaged into straws.
He hopes to eventually be able to ship fresh, chilled semen that could be warmed and used on farms.
Luther designed his new facility specifically for his needs, structuring gates to fit the area available. He advertises four or five main AI days in late summer, but producers also can call to set up an appointment.
During on-site lap AI for sheep, producers drive up to Luther’s facility and unload ewes into a pen that can accommodate 20 head.
A low dose of anesthesia is administered before the ewe is flipped onto her back into a cradle. The belly is clipped and cleaned thoroughly, then Luther makes two small incisions and inserts a scope to examine the uterus before inserting semen directly into the uterus. The ewe is moved into a recovery pen. The entire process takes minutes.
“It’s such low anesthesia, they basically walk off when they’re done,” he said.
Deer must be completely anesthetized for AI and get a reversal dose after about 10 minutes. They also require specialized handling facilities that are totally enclosed and dark, he said.
“It’s definitely costly for white-tailed deer because the value of the offspring is so high,” he said. “It changes with the markets.”
Weeks before breeding, Luther provides estrus synchronization protocol to producers to improve the odds that all females are ovulating at AI time. He also supplies management tips, as success also depends on animal nutrition and stress.
He said he charges less than most other lap AI services available. Sheep AI costs $30 to $50 per head, and if using fresh semen, it’s $100 to $150. Conception rates average about 65 percent.
A happy client
Paula Brandt, who brought five ewes to Luther for lap AI last August, is a satisfied first-time customer and plans to be back this summer.
“We’re totally sold,” she said.
Brandt, who farms near Rock Springs, said lap AI is a great way for small flock owners, who can’t justify the purchase and expense of having their own ram, to improve their genetics. One of Luther’s rams, Big Star, cost $15,000.
“For us to get those kind of genetics, we would have to spend a considerable amount on a ram,” she said. “It doesn’t make sense.”
Brandt said she saw an 80 percent conception rate, with four of her five ewes successfully bred. The resulting lambs were born a couple of weeks ago.
“They’re some of the most vigorous lambs we’ve ever had born here,” she said. “They hit the ground running.”
Brandt, who said she used to show sheep with Luther as a kid, said he made the entire process easy. He also made it an educational experience for her and her son when they visited his farm.
Brandt said she’s working to expand her flock, and she eventually wants to be able to raise market lambs for her six children to show instead of buying them.
“We already plan to do it again next year,” she said of lap AI.
In his limited spare time, Luther continues to work on finishing the facility’s construction himself. A utility room and lab space are in the works, and he plans to put in an office and bathroom.
Within the next five years, he hopes to offer in vitro fertilization to small-ruminant producers, harvesting eggs from elite females. Currently, only one company in the U.S. offers this service on a limited basis, he said.
At the university, he’s been working to develop a cervical AI method. More than 100 ewes have been bred using that technique, and ultrasound tests were done over J-Term. With students, he also has been evaluating semen shipping containers and extenders.
Luther likes what his off-campus business allows him to bring to his classroom. He often enlists students — mostly pre-veterinary majors — to help with his AI work, giving them valuable in-field experience.
“To be able to be working hands-on with livestock and reproductive management and be a reproductive physiologist at the university makes me a stronger educator,” he said.
Even as his business continues to grow, Luther doesn’t plan to quit his day job any time soon.
“I don’t think I could ever give up teaching because it’s so fulfilling,” he said. “I’m trying to maintain a balance.”
Luther and his family also operate Luther Show Rams. He raises 30 Hampshire/Suffolk ewes and shares rams with his dad, who has 40 ewes.
For more information about Reproductive Services LLC, call 701-212-8385 or find them on Facebook.