The aim of this study was to investigate the reasons for differences in field fertility of bulls following insemination with frozen-thawed semen. The study was carried out in two separate parts over two years and comparisons were made between 5 high and 4 low fertility Holstein Friesian bulls as determined by their either 90 day non-return rate (Year 1) or calving rate (Year 2). Two high fertility Limousin bulls were included in Year 1 for comparative purposes. The ability of sperm from each bull to penetrate artificial mucus was assessed (Year 1 = 7 replicates; Year 2 = 5 replicates). Glass capillary tubes (2 per bull per replicate) were filled with artificial mucus and incubated with sperm stained in 1% Hoechst 33342 for 30 min at 37 degrees C. The number of sperm were subsequently counted at 10 mm intervals along the tube between 40 and 80 mm markers. Sperm mitochondria( activity of each bull was assessed by the MIT (3-(4,5-Dimethylthiazol-2-yl)-2,5-diphenyl-tetrazolium bromide) assay (4 replicates in each year). Sperm were incubated with MTT for 1 h at 37 degrees C following which the absorbance of formazan was read using a spectrophotometer. Sperm viability after thawing was assessed for each bull using a live/dead sperm viability kit (Year 1 = 3 replicates; Year 2 = 4 replicates). A minimum of 250 cells were assessed per bull in each replicate and classified as either live or dead. Finally, the ability of sperm to fertilize oocytes in vitro and their ability to develop to blastocyst stage embryos were assessed (5 replicates in each year involving 220 to 306 oocytes per bull). Data transformation to normalize residuals was required for mucus sperm penetration (square root) and IVF (cleavage and blastocyst rate) results (arcsin). The mean number of sperm counted at each 10 mm mark between 40 and 80 mm was higher in the high fertility (56.0; 95% CI 39.5 to 75.3) compared to the low fertility (42.9; 95% CI 29.3 to 59.1) Holstein Friesian bulls but the difference did not reach formal significance (P = 0.09). Fertility status had no effect on the ability of sperm to reduce MTT to fomuzan (mean absorbance 0.34 +/- 0.051 and 0.30 +/- 0.044) or on the percentage of live sperm per straw (mean 47.3 +/- 5.47 and 32.4 +/- 4.66) for high and low fertility Holstein Friesian bulls respectively. Oocyte cleavage rate following insemination with sperm from high fertility Holstein Friesian bulls was significantly higher than with sperm from low fertility Holstein Friesian bulls [76.7% (95% CI 60.9 to 89.4) and 55.3 (95% CI 40.4 to 69.7) respectively, P = 0.04]. There was no significant effect of bull fertility on blastocyst rate [34.7% (95% CI 21.1 to 49.6) and 24.2 % (95% CI 14.1 to 36.0) for the high and low fertility Holstein Friesian bulls, respectively; P = 0.2]. In conclusion, sperm from high fertility bulls tended to be more effective in penetrating artificial mucus and to have an increased ability to fertilize oocytes in vitro; however, once fertilization occurred subsequent embryo development was not significantly affected by fertility status. (C) 2011 Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.