Marketing calves before they hit the ground

By Lane Pfannenstiel

Hays senior

When it comes to ranchers having a good understanding of their own calf crops, wouldn’t it be a lot more helpful to know what sex they were going to be before they even hit the ground? This may be a possibility in the future with the introduction of sexed semen to the beef cattle industry.

This is also an extremely helpful tool for seedstock producers. Sexed semen is used through artificial insemination where the cows are bred without using a bull.

Sexed semen first came into use in the dairy industry in the late 1990s. Dairymen strictly use sexed semen on all of the first lactation females to produce their replacements. The conception rates in the early years of development compared to conventional semen were very low.

“Sex is the most important genetic trait,” said Colorado State University reproductive physiologist George Seidel. Seidel helped pioneer semen sorting processes and their use in beef cattle.

There are two different types of semen, sexed and conventional. Sexed semen is sorted male and female. From there, it is put in straws and stored in liquid nitrogen to freeze it. Conventional semen is not sorted male to female. Sexed semen straws are usually 3 milliliters, meaning around 2 million sperm cells, vs. the conventional 5 milliliters of around 20 million sperm cells.

There is an understandably higher price tag on sorted semen. These straws can range anywhere from $50 to upwards of almost $500 per straw depending on the demand and availability of the bull. That same bull’s conventional semen is generally half that price, again depending on the demand and availability. Prices also may vary if that bull has a reputation of producing good maternal traits, or being a more terminal sire.

Conception rates with sorted semen got off to a rocky start. With it being a relatively new technology, there are differences in how to manage herds when using sorted semen. These small steps and practices have taken a few years for producers to master.

Conception rates have been found to increase when heat-detecting rather than fixed-time artificial insemination, which goes hand and hand with conventional semen use.

Conception also has gone up because the sorting technology improves year by year.

If conception rates are that much worse, then why not make sorted semen straws the same cell count and size of conventional straws? This is because of the production cost vs. the actual improved fertility rate when increasing the cell count in the straws. As of today, sorted semen conception rates are just below conception rates with conventional semen use.

Sexed semen can be found in most sire catalogs across the country. Often, they have both sexed male and female of that specific bull in their catalogs. Some of these corporations are: Select Sires, ABS, SEK Genetics, and Cattle Vision. Semen can be ordered online or by phone. Basically, what this means is that sexed semen is not any more difficult to acquire than conventional semen.

That said, not every bull in the beef industry is going to have his semen sexed. It will depend on his popularity and whether or not it is worth having his semen sorted.

So now comes the ultimate question. Is it worth it to me, as a beef producer, to use sorted semen on my operation today?

There are a couple of answers, one is that it depends on what phase of beef production the rancher is currently involved in. If a seedstock rancher needs to market bulls every year, then yes, sorted semen may be a good investment for his operation.

A rancher may not even be a seedstock producer but would like to produce some replacement females with some of the genetics that he likes. That is also a justification to use sorted semen.

I feel that sorted semen has not yet found its forever home within beef cattle production as a whole. It may not be worth it today, but technological breakthroughs are constantly happening and it is only a matter of time before we see sexed semen being used on many different levels of beef production for many different reasons.

Lane Pfannenstiel, a 2017 Hays High School graduate, is a junior majoring in animal science at Fort Hays State University. He is the son of Jill Pfannenstiel, Hays.

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