Making a choice with sexed semen

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SALEM, Ohio – Choosing the sex of any offspring may have a space-age kind of feel to it. But for some milk producers, gender selection is becoming less science fiction and more modern reality.
Allowing dairy farmers to determine the gender of calves has several benefits, according to C. Hap Allen, Genex associate vice president of dairy marketing development.
One benefit, Allen said, is more heifer calves born on the farm. And more heifers means more replacement heifers, which gives producers an opportunity to eliminate lower-quality animals.
Using sexed semen also provides a way to improve herd genetics and it reduces biosecurity risks by allowing producers to expand their herds internally.
Kevin Muxlow, global marketing manager at Alta Genetics, said sexed semen gives producers the “ability to focus on getting heifer calves and heifer calves of more genetic merit.”
Not quite perfect. While the benefits are lucrative, the science of sexed semen isn’t perfect – yet.
Lower conception rates are a major concern for companies involved in marketing the product.
Mel DeJarnette, senior reproduction specialist at Select Sires, said the conception rate with sexed semen is typically 70 percent to 75 percent of what a producer would normally achieve with conventional semen.
In general, herds that achieve 60 percent to 65 percent conception in virgin heifers using conventional semen should expect conception rates in the 40 percent to 50 percent range using gender SELECTed semen from Select Sires.
However, sexed semen is 90 percent effective when it comes to giving producers the gender of calf they want. And that, DeJarnette said, makes the investment worth it.
“Even with the reduction in conception rates, there’s still a good return on that investment,” he said.
For now, gender SELECTed semen is only recommended for use in virgin heifers, but DeJarnette said Select Sires has ongoing research trials in cows as well.
Research. Genex and Alta Genetics don’t have a product commercially available yet, but they are conducting field trials for Decisive semen from Monsanto Dairy. The research includes sexed semen possibilities for heifers and cows.
Genex plans to eventually offer sexed semen for beef cattle, according to Allen.
On the farm. Sexed semen has piqued the interest of many dairy farmers and some have already seen results of the product.
Luke Keller, who co-owns Keller Farms in Mercer County, Ohio, has bred about 150 virgin heifers with sexed semen during the past 16 months. And he agrees the return is worth the investment.
Keller said the conception rate has been around 60 percent and heifers bred with sexed semen have produced 91 percent heifer calves.
Expanding. Keller Farms is expanding its herd and, with sexed semen, the expansion can take place without buying animals from outside sources.
“We don’t have to worry about bringing diseases to the farm,” Keller said. “Anything we can do within our own herd is just a whole lot better.”
Dan Andreas of Andreas Farms in Sugarcreek, Ohio, has used sexed semen to breed more than 250 heifers on his farm since February 2005.
Andreas said one of the product’s hidden benefits is smaller calves and easier calving.
The conception rate for Andreas’ herd was 52 percent, with nearly 95 percent heifer calves.
While sexed semen does cost more than conventional semen, Andreas said it’s a worthwhile investment and he plans to continue using it.
Making it better. Companies that market sexed semen are conducting research to improve conception rates. The goal is to create sexed semen with a conception rate as good as conventional semen.
However, not everyone thinks the benefits outweigh the risks. Opponents of sexed semen have argued producing too many heifers could hurt the market.
But Genex’s Allen said improved genetics and better replacement heifers will actually boost the market. Animals in poor health can be eliminated, which ultimately benefits farmers and makes the market better, he added.
(Reporter Janelle Skrinjar welcomes feedback by phone at 800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at jskrinjar@farmanddairy.com.)

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