Technology impacts the lives of many. Modern day perks such as cell phones, computers and GPS systems used to be only curses of the rich. Now days, everyone can take advantage of new technology. Computers can be carried in a simple briefcase, no need for a room to house its components separately. Cell phones come in all shapes and sizes with many different attachments for hands free or mental telepathy. GPS systems seem worth it, although some have a hard time with satellite directions and end up lost.
Cattlemen, no longer afraid of change, have grasped these advances and put them to use. Laptops, chute side, are not an uncommon sight these days. Tack shops carry a whole line of cell phone carriers just so cowboys can carry them horseback. Other advances allow for better breeding decisions and more accurate data that will help benchmark the cow herd. A simple blood sample can determine pregnancy, while ultrasound can guarantee sex, if done at a certain stage of pregnancy, and often one DNA sample will tell each individual's story.
With a little education, all of theses things can add a value component or help cattlemen make better buying decisions. Artificial insemination (AI) is not new to the beef business. A large percentage of purebred cattlemen have been taking advantage of this genetic improvement opportunity for generations. Now, AI, with sexed semen, is taking shape and finding a niche with cattlemen who look to capitalize on advances in sexing technology.
“Sexed semen is a good option for producers who know what their end target is. It appeals to programs that are experienced with AI. I don't recommend sexed semen for first timers with AI because they are setting themselves up for an expensive mistake,” says Gustavo Toro, Sexing Technologies, Navasota, Texas.
“Because of its expense, I wouldn't recommend sexed semen to the first time user of AI. It has appealed to the more progressive producer who knows what it takes to get cows bred,” says Marty Ponder, ABS Beef Technical Specialist, Bristow, Oklahoma.
Most cattlemen, who have been burned once, try not to stick around to take it again the second time. Most are reluctant of any change, particularly one that comes along for the second time in the same generation of producers. Sexed semen saw a huge demand in the late 80s and early 90s because it was supposed to offer cattlemen a chance to inseminate cows with a desired result. At the time, sexed semen was deemed a failure for most, causing some reluctance among producers to willingly try it again.
“I was very skeptical of sexed semen, because I remember the first time it came out. I did some trial work with GRI and my opinion quickly changed. Conception rates were well within the parameters we had to have to make it work and gender is usually very accurate,” says Fred Schuetze, Director of Livestock Operations, Buzzard Hollow Ranch, Granbury, Texas.
“The technology has changed from the past and it's a lot more accurate. All the major AI studs are using the current sexing technology,” Toro says. “The viability in the semen is not compromised with the new method. A lot of small details had to be revisited to make this technology a reality. We have quality control points in place before we release the semen to make sure the product will live up to producer's standards. We take a purity test, which is a random straw from every batch created the day before. If the semen isn't at least 87 percent of the desired gender, the entire batch destroyed.”
This new technology, at this time, will not fit every class of cattle on the ranch. Trials are underway to improve conception rates in mature cows, but right now the best option for older females is a bull or conventional semen. Mating virgin heifers has been typical for most with limited time for an AI program in the past, but the technology will not fit most traditional timed breeding methods.
“We recommend the use of sexed semen only on heifers at this time. The conception rates for mature cows will not be as good as they are with conventional semen,” Toro says. “We are researching how sexed semen can best be used with a timed breeding program. If we could get a 55 percent conception rate with sexed semen and timed breeding, I think more producers would utilize sexed semen, but we aren't there yet.”
“Our conception rates are typically two or three percent less than conventional semen. That is very acceptable if sex is important. Don't use sexed semen on mature cows or you'll be very disappointed. We breed only on a standing heat, we don't use sexed semen in a timed breeding synchronization program,” Schuetze says. “We have modified our AI technique a little. We first thought we had to horn breed with sexed semen, but that's not true and unless you're proficient at it you'll do more harm than good.”
“We recommend sexed semen for use on virgin heifers,” Ponder says. “Typically you can get the best conception rates with virgin heifers and usually these are a firm's best genetics.”
Early trials indicate sexed semen is not as potent as conventional semen. The industry seems to be willing to settle for a slight decrease in conception rates, if gender will help maximize profits or advance the herd.
“Sexed semen is a good deal if your goal is to produce more females. The conception rates are lower, but nine out of 10 times you'll get females from that mating,” Ponder says. “With this kind of success at predicting gender, the process can work.”
“In the US, most of our customers are seedstock producers who want to concentrate on producing more females, particularly, if it is a breed that has trouble merchandising bulls. The break even for that female comes down by quite a bit, if she doesn't have to make up for her brother,” Toro says. “Foreign countries want to buy male semen because they are looking for a terminal cross to create a better beef animal and don't have a place for the females resulting from this cross.”
“In the purebred industry, we have to rely on what we can sell and where we can generate value. I can't sell and maintain enough females to ignore my bull market. I have to market between 200 and 250 bulls per year,” Schuetze says. “I breed some of my lower quality Simmental cows to Red Angus bulls. When I mate those half blood heifers to sexed semen, it increases their average price by $500. If I can spend an extra $40 to generate an extra $500 in return, I am going to do that every time.”
Pregnant cows year in and year out are the money makers in the beef business. Trying to take as many pounds per exposed cow to the bank at every weaning period tends to make most producers and their bankers happy. Cattle bred in a designed AI program should tighten calving intervals and put added selection pressure on fertility.
“We have designed AI programs for most of our customers to increase the number of calves in the first 20 days of the breeding season,” Ponder says. “With sexed or conventional semen, you are going to get a product of proven genetics.”
“We AI every heifer on the place two services and average 1.27 straws of semen per AI pregnancy,” Schuetze says. “I have seen a lot of natural breeding programs where the bull didn't do much better than that.”
Some advanced reproductive technology, like embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization, are very important to the bottom line of purebred operations. Sexed semen has been used with success in both processes, making it a more viable option for some producers to utilize in instances of high return.
“An embryo flush with sexed semen is nearly double the value for most of my customers. It just works if a guy wants heifers from that mating or is looking to create a group of bulls or in my case, many full sibs and half brothers,” Schuetze says. “We do a lot of ET work and we found out you had to double the concentration in the sexed semen to get desired results. Four straws of this semen per flush will produce close to the same results as conventional semen.”
“Our customers have been using sexed semen with embryo transfer and in vitro fertilization with great success. Semen that is going to be used for ET work is a higher concentration and is made to order for each customer,” Toro says. “We have done some reverse sorting on conventional frozen semen of older bulls where producers are trying to get more daughters, from bulls that don't have sexed semen available, with good success.”
Sexed semen is a byproduct of the progressive nature of the dairy industry where only the extremely awesome individuals, with all the bells and whistles, are kept for herd bulls. Introducing sexed semen, to the beef industry, has it own set of challenges; not only with cattlemen, but also, with the herd bulls, during the collection and sexing process.
“Sexed semen really took off in the dairy business because most people don't really care to have bull calves. We put some beef bulls through the process and offered the product to the public with success,” Ponder says. “Typically, dairy bulls will produce more volume of semen and some volume will be lost during the sexing process. Not every beef bull will work for sexed semen. Some bulls don't go through the process very well, but the ones with extremely high quality semen usually will work and we can offer sexed semen to our customers.”
“Not all beef bulls can produce sexed semen. Any dairy bull will more than likely produce sexed semen. The dairy industry has been selecting for semen quality for a long time, because dairy bulls that didn't produce extremely high quality semen were sent to town,” Toro says. “It takes some bulls time to get used to collection process. Nutrition or body condition score (BCS) is extremely important. We have a full time nutritionist and mix all our own feed. Typically, for best semen quality, we try to emulate what BCS that bull would be in, if he was turned out with 25 cows.” Toro explains their headquarters facility has 28 air conditioned stalls to help bulls acclimate to the heat and keep producing semen through the summer months.
Costs associated with sexed semen also could be a limiting factor before there is widespread use in the beef industry. At this time, only a small percentage of commercial cattlemen have taken advantage of the benefits AI can bring to their programs.
“The costs associated with sexed semen may not fit into the commercial man's budget. As costs increase, the commercial man may have to think about new and innovative ways to generate profit,” Ponder says. “Hopefully, one day we'll be able to price the sexed product at the commercial level. To date, mostly purebred breeders have bought sexed semen.”
“Our commercial cattlemen have not realized the value of sexed semen. Only a small percentage of our commercial producers use AI in their programs. Our foreign customers have realized the value of AI,” Toro says. “Sexed semen retail price is usually three times the cost of conventional semen from the same bull.”
Management programs must give and take using something new. Especially, in a high input cost environment, producers have to maximize value with every calf. Today's industry demands a different type of product. Some production systems will call for high quality replacements, while others will work toward a male endpoint to either turn out a group of herd sires or create terminal animals stamped with approval from a genetics and data standpoint.
As regulations change and “economies of scale” become more involved in the beef business, more firms will look to AI as a tool for genetic enhancement. Sexed semen should gain momentum as more producers look to add dollars to the bottom line, with a gender specific product.
“Sexed semen is a good deal for anyone who wants to concentrate on building a herd,” Ponder says. “Known genetics, even with a conventional AI program, can create added value.”
“Programs that have certain production goals know exactly what they want to produce. We're trying to bring success to our customers,” Toro says. “I think, eventually, the beef industry will accept the technology because the cows will get bred and the calves will be the desired gender.”
“I can't always afford to buy the best bulls, but I usually can afford to buy semen on the best bulls available. I can make a lot of genetic improvement in my replacement females in a short period of time with sexed semen,” Schuetze says. “Our business is all about genetic improvement. The ultimate goal has to be how we can raise calves that are more efficient and can produce more red meat.”