Artificial insemination (AI) has long proven to be an effective and profitable management tool of the cattle trade. Another tool in the AI toolbox, sexed semen, has found its own niche on the farm in recent years and is growing in popularity.
Chris Lahmers, marketing director for COBA/Select Sires, said the company’s sales of gender-sorted semen have steadily increased in the past few years, though they have generally plateaued due to the recent drop in milk prices. Still, the market for the product is ever changing.
“About 9% of our sales of Holstein semen and about 37% of Jersey sales were gender sorted semen in 2015,” Lahmers said. “One of the reasons for that is the technology has improved increasing the fertility of the product. The sorting process is more efficient and the extender enhancements have improved fertility. The other reason for its increased popularity is the value of the genetics of the bulls that are being sorted. With genomics, people have put a greater value on the genetics in their herd and they’re wanting to get the most genetic progress out of their best animals. They’re using gender sorted semen to do that.”
The question persists of how the process happens. Select Sires contracts with Sexing Technologies (ST) to process gender sorted semen. ST owns the patents on the semen sorting technology that is used in the AI industry. In 2006, ST opened a facility on Plain City to process gender sorted semen for Select Sires, for which they pay a per unit fee.
Sexing Technologies notes on its website that USDA researchers experienced a breakthrough in semen-sexing technology the 1980s. Patents on the technology were awarded to XY Inc. of Fort Collins, Colorado. Efficiency grew and commercialization of gender sorted semen in the United States began in 2003 when ST granted a license to use the technology. All major AI companies now work with ST to process gender sorted semen.
“The cliff notes version is they take the semen and run it through a flow cytometer,” Lahmers said. “The sperm cells are dyed and come through a laser individually where they separate the cells with male on one side and female on the other. They usually figure the process yields a product that is about 90% female semen. There are going to be a few male sperm in each straw as well but 90% of the semen in the straw is going to be female.
“Through the process, we’ve been able to gender sort our genetically superior sires. When it first started in 2006, we just did the sires we had an abundant inventory of conventional semen on so sometimes the genetic level wasn’t quite as appealing. But over the years with technology and improved efficiency of the process, we’ve been able to do our best sires in the breed to offer gender sorted semen. That’s been really appealing to a lot of the dairymen out there.”
Lahmers said there are a number of benefits to sexed semen, including increased milk production as a result of improved cow and calf health.
“There was a study done a couple years ago where they found that virgin heifers that carry a heifer ended up producing 300 pounds more milk per lactation than those individuals carrying bull calves. The primary reason for that would be calving ease,” he said. “If they have a heifer, it’s usually easier on them to calve and get off to a better start and produce more milk.”
Lahmers added he doesn’t see the rise in production from sexed semen as much of a factor in the recent drop in milk prices.
With such complexity, many farmers tend to look at a range of factors that surround the technology, like cost, as barriers to its use on the operation. Farmers need to consider many factors when deciding to use sexed semen, some of which include lower fertility rate, accuracy of heat detection and amount of replacement heifers needed for herd goals.
“The cost of producing a unit of gender sorted semen is much higher than the cost to produce conventional semen. Therefore, the cost of gender sorted semen is up to double that of the conventional unit,” Lahmers said. “The amount of sales we see depends a lot on milk price.”
Also varying are the ways in which a sexed semen program can be introduced, flexible to the type of farm it’s serving.
“COBA can assist farmers with making those decisions with our mating program,” he said. “We’ll go to herds and help them match the best sire genetics to their most elite animals. Genomic testing can also be used to determine individual genetic values. We can make mating recommendations on their breeding goals and recommend which ones to breed to gender sorted semen, and which ones to breed to conventional semen. Some farms break their matings into three tiers: those that get bred to gender sorted semen, conventional semen and then beef. Others that are undergoing expansion and want to continue to grow herd numbers may use gender sorted semen on all their heifers. It just depends what kind of setup they’re in and what are their goals are for the future.”
Overall, 97% of Select Sires’ business is dairy and 3% is beef. Lahmers said sexed semen has helped in the market strategy of producers — one of the many reasons for its increased use in recent years.
“Especially in the Jersey breed, particularly why we see the increase in sexed semen is bull calves are not worth that much,” Lahmers said. “So we find a lot of producers are doing is using gender sorted semen on anything they want to keep for the future and then everything else they will use beef semen on to give more value to those bull calves.
“The strong beef market two years ago showed producers there was a value for their male calves. Particularly with Jerseys, they could now get some additional value out of those bull calves when they go to a feedlot. So they breed the top end of their herd with gender sorted semen to meet the needs of their dairy. Then the bottom end of the herd is breed to create a more valuable calf for the beef market.”
Josh Keplar of W.G. Dairy Supply has seen firsthand the change in thinking in herd management that’s accompanied the technology.
“Sexed semen now is more of a tool on dairy farms to get replacements out of your best cows,” he said. “So you want to use sexed semen to breed your top performing cows to get the best genetics to be the future of your herd. That’s how sexed semen has kind of changed.”
Prior to his current position, Keplar spent 10 years working in the AI industry for Genex Cooperative.
“Originally when it first came out, you used sexed semen on everything because you got more heifer calves — that’s a great idea,” Keplar said. “Where the downside of that was you were also getting replacements out of your bottom end animals to where now guys, instead of using a lot of sexed semen, the use of sexed semen actually came down and that’s because they’re using more targeted breeding to get replacements out of the top end versus just breeding everything.”
As with most technologies through the years, the quality has improved and Keplar said producers have seen that in the form of fertility.
“The conception rate has gotten a little bit better from when sexed semen first came out, but I think just overall management of the cows they choose to breed and breeding first lactation cows and breeding virgin heifers, guys have found the benefits outweigh the lower conception,” Keplar said.
COBA/Select Sires is based on Alton Darby Creek Road outside of Columbus. W.G. Dairy Supply is in Creston and Minster.