Sexed Semen

This sexed semen article is a copy that was published in the Texas Dairy Review in June 2010 where you can find here. I thought it would be of interest to my readers.  It might be a little out of date, but I think I can add extra post in the future about the subject of Sexed Semen.   –    Enjoy!

Sexed semen has been one of the newest technologies available to dairymen for reproduction of their herds in the past few years. The mechanically-engineered Gender Enhanced Semen (GES) has been around since the early 1980s but did not hit the commercial market until the early 2000s. Once it was released, dairy producers were anxious to use the marketing tool to increase heifer population and ultimately enable their dairies to produce more milk.

But, is the industry headed down the right path with the use of sexed semen? While the majority of dairymen, scientists, and big A.I. companies may say “yes” because of its obvious benefits, others are not so sure and feel it adds to the overwhelming problems and contradictions already present in the dairy industry.

Competing without sexed semen

Eric Danzeisen, partner with Wout Vander Goot, of Sierra Desert Breeders, based in Tulare, California, began their AI breeding service in 2007 and have found they can successfully compete in the AI market without selling sexed semen. Within three short years, they have rapidly grown their core customer base, even during the recent economic recession.

“We are doing as well or better than some other AI breeding companies. We don’t sell sexed semen because of our concerns,” Danzeisen said. “We saw what happened with BST after it was the big rage and then dwindled away. We don’t know if that will happen with sexed semen or not but it’s a concern we have considered.”

Old fashioned AI

Danzeisen and sales representative Josh Verburg said they can attribute most of their business success to long hours and hard work. “You just have to get out there and look at the genetics if you want to sell good semen to dairymen. We don’t just look at numbers on a piece of paper—we check out the genetics the old-fashioned way – through the best cow families and looking at milking daughters.”

Danzeisen and Verburg said personalized service and fashioning their business away from the popular trend of sexed semen, sets them apart from other AI companies. They are convinced that conventional AI breeding has proved its effectiveness over its many years of use but since sexed semen is relatively new, no one really knows what can happen with it in the future.

Overuse of sexed semen

The breeder specialists said problems in the dairy industry become even more apparent with the overuse of sexed semen. In the latest episode of spiraling milk prices, dairy industry experts across the nation claim the biggest part of the price problem is due to too much milk on the market.

“That fits the popular trend of growing your milk production,” Danzeisen and Verburg said. “But, when you add more and more heifers to the mix, and keep adding them, it becomes an overall production problem for dairymen that works against them, instead of for them.”

Economics show too much milk diminishes negotiating power that results in milk prices bottoming out, as seen at the end of 2008 through 2009. Cooperatives maintain they cannot get good milk prices when processors have an overabundance of the product—and claim the responsibility lies with its producers. Meanwhile, the value of the world’s most unique and nutritious commodity becomes insignificant.

No stopping point

“This popular dairy philosophy of ‘more is better’ provides no stopping point,” Danzeisen said. “My producers feel they have to grow to keep up with modern trends to compete in the market and it would be next to impossible to get a producer to limit his own production when his peers or neighbors will not.”

Danziesen sees this as the same mindset for the overuse of sexed semen and “more” can be detrimental to the overall financial health of producers and the entire industry.

Contradictions in financial reward

One dairy producer mentioned to Danziesen the incredibly high cull rate among some producers. But, to cull cows, only to go out and buy more sexed semen to increase a herd, is not a good business decision. This is especially true, the producer added, when considering it takes about $1800 to grow out a heifer yet it is only worth about $1100 on the market. Where is the financial reward in this?

Another contradiction is Cooperatives Working Together (CWT), when a few years ago it initiated an effort to curtail milk production. “Dairy producers pay .10 cents per hundredweight into the program to kill cows, yet, they turn right around and buy sexed semen to grow more heifers which means more milk—the very thing they are trying to get rid of,” Verburg said.

“Killing 280,000 cows last year and producing approximately 300,000 new heifers at the same time, does not make sense,” he added.

Control in world market

Danziesen pointed out that as the U.S. enters a world milk market, American genetics are very much in demand. “Third world nations are now constructing basic, and in some cases, huge infrastructures to compete with our milk markets. It is crucial to minimize the effects of American genetics through sexed semen worldwide.

“If we have added 300,000 new heifers, how many more heifers were produced worldwide with the best genetics in the world?” Danzeisen asked.

Public awareness/acceptance

In today’s industry, producers are aware of the importance of exhibiting a good public image. As seen with the public’s outrage of BST, it is becoming clear the public is moving toward natural and organic products and does not take well to products that are mechanically engineered.

“As AI breeders, we realize there are more benefits to sexed semen than not. But, it isn’t natural to sort semen to get exactly what you want and it hasn’t been around long enough to see if the public will accept this practice once they discover it,” Danziesen said.

Since some cooperatives in the past required producers to quit using BST, Danziesen wonders if they will ask producers to quit using sexed semen. “Not just because of the public, but also because of the overpopulated heifer industry.”

Experts have said sexed semen is not a “band aid” for poor reproductive performance and advise producers to focus on keeping their herds healthy and disease-free.

Drawbacks against rewards

Thomas R. Overton, associate professor, DVM, MPVM, Dairy Production Medicine at the University of Georgia, College of Veterinary Medicine, addresses sexed semen in his article, “Economic considerations of sexed semen on your dairy,” (2007).

He outlines the genetic improvements sexed semen provides but also points to its drawbacks and the risks that should be weighed against potential rewards.

In part, he said while the use of sexed semen may increase the proportion of live female calves born yearly, more pregnancies are needed to return cows to the next lactation than are needed to produce the necessary herd replacements. “Producing more heifers than are needed by the dairy industry is not desirable,” Overton said.

He said the downside to sexed semen technology for increased replacement heifers is: every cow should not produce a heifer calf; only the best cows should be producing daughters for maximal genetic gain; there is an extra cost for sexed semen; and, there can be problems with reduced fertility.

Too many heifers, less value

Like too much milk, Overton said too many heifers in excess of industry needs will have less value. He added the use of sexed semen is risky if the producer is only trying to capture value from high heifer prices.

Overton said a major advantage to sexed semen for herd expansion is it increases biosecurity. But, he advises producers to consider filling rates for barns and pens, meaning many expanding herds will still need to buy cows. He said producers should plan for the extra heifers and determine if there is enough room for the increase.

Extra cost considered?

“Hutches, pens, labor, capital, feed supplies, and storage facilities are some of the many areas that can become overwhelmed if heifer numbers increase by 70% (from a 50% heifer ratio to an 85% ratio),” he said.

Danzeisen and Verburg concur dairy producers should be aware of the consequences of using sexed semen. “It might make financial sense to do so on your dairy farm, but taking two steps forward yesterday might have actually depleted your bank account today.”