The objective of this study was to determine if the quality of frozen-thawed ram semen could be effectively evaluated through in vitro fertilization (IVF) procedures prior to insemination as a means of improving pregnancy rate. In experiment 1, frozen semen from four Belclare rams was assessed using IVF and was used for cervical insemination of ewes (n = 181) in 13 pedigree Belclare flocks. There was a significant association between IVF score (proportion of oocytes cleaved at 48 h post insemination) and non-return rate (P < 0.001). For experiment 2, semen from nine Belclare rams was evaluated by IVF and semen from rams with the highest (n = 3) and lowest (n = 2) IVF scores was used for cervical insemination of ewes (n = 111) under experimental conditions. Differences in pregnancy rates between individual rams did not reach significance. Experiment 3 was designed to determine if differences detected between rams at field level could be accurately identified via IVF evaluation and involved frozen semen from eight Norwegian rams of known field fertility (non-return rates ranged from 45.7 to 73.8%). IVF score did not reflect the differences in field fertility. In the final experiment six of the eight Norwegian rams involved in experiment 3 were selected based on IVF score (three highest and three lowest) and their semen was used for cervical insemination (n = 90 ewes). While significant differences in pregnancy rate were found between individual rams (P < 0.02, range: 12.9-65.8%) they were not associated with IVF score. Ewe breed had a significant effect (P < 0.003) on pregnancy rate in both experiments 2 and 4. In conclusion, there was no evidence from this study that the evaluation of semen quality through IVF provided a useful predictor of pregnancy rate under field conditions. It may be that the IVF procedures as used routinely, which are essentially designed to maximize blastocyst yields rather than for detecting differences in fertilizing ability between batches of sperm, need to be modified.
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