Artificial insemination and sexed semen: are you ready?

Cow-calf pairs

Artificial insemination is a genetic management opportunity that many cow-calf operations have avoided. With the commercial availability of sexed semen, maybe that’s about to change.

I am attending the Beef Improvement Federation symposium this week in Brookings, S.D. and it is living up to the high expectations that attendees and presenters have set. In fact, it is from this group of forward thinkers and innovators that much if not all the genetic tools we have available to us originated.

BEEF has been a BIF sponsor for many years and I’ve enjoyed being part of the group. If you want your mind stretched in ways you didn’t think it could stretch and some of your paradigms challenged, the BIF meeting is for you. Come prepared to think.

Among the many thought-provoking sessions was a look at sexed semen. Our dairy cousinshave been using this technology for a while now and it is poised to make inroads in the beef business.

 

It won’t be easy and it won’t be fast, but the technology has some intriguing aspects. The advantages of sexed semen are that you can tailor your calf crop to your marketing needs.

If you’re a terminal producer, you can artificially inseminate (AI) your heifers for more bull calves. If you have a maternal herd, you can AI for more heifers. If you’re a seedstock producer, you can AI for more bull calves to develop into herd bulls.

Early on in the efforts to commercialize sexed semen, conception rates were a real issue. That has largely been eliminated, the experts say, with conception rates now closing in on what you can expect from conventional AI.

Beyond that, the disadvantages are that AI has some management limitations, especially in commercial herds. And sexed semen seems to work better in heifers than in mature cows. A lot of that has to do with managing fixed-time or split-time AI on cows with a calf at side.

AI and other reproductive technologies are well established in the seedstock business and sexed semen makes sense there. I don’t have the numbers in front of me, but AI use by commercial beef producers isn’t very high. Will the prospect of being able to better optimize profit potential by skewing the sex of your calf crop encourage more commercial beef producers to adopt AI?

I don’t know, but I’m skeptical. On operations that run a sizeable number of cows, especially in drier regions where stocking rates are less and pastures are big, AI is a major management undertaking. But some operations are doing it successfully with their heifers and thereby shortening the genetic interval substantially.

The beef business is changing and many of the legacy paradigms we hold so dear may have to innovate or die. I’m no happier about that prospect than you are, but the advancing march of technology is undeniable. Looking at new and emerging technologies like sexed semen as an opportunity is the only mindset that a beef producer can adopt and expect to remain successful and sustainable, in my opinion.

So maybe, now that sexed semen is a commercial reality, more cow-calf producers will look at it as a management and marketing opportunity rather than a management headache. Time and market drivers will tell.

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