Sexed Semen's Time

Sexed semen is a technology whose time may have arrived for the beef industry.

“The U.S. beef industry is slowly increasing the use of sexed semen. Countries, such as Brazil, already use sexed semen extensively,” said John Hall, superintendent of the Nancy M. Cummings Center at the University of Idaho, and a beef Extension specialist.

Seedstock producers in the U.S. are increasingly interested in sexed semen to produce more replacement heifers.

Another reason seedstock producers are interested in sexed semen is to generate more bull calves from a high-EPD herd sire to produce bulls for the commercial sector, Hall said.

While sexed semen has been around the dairy industry for more than a decade, the technology has been more of a novelty for seedstock and commercial cattlemen up until recently, as increased technology and management improvements come into play.

“The technology is improving with sexed semen, but there are still challenges for the beef industry and some limitations producers need to be aware of,” Hall said.

The dairy industry has used sexed semen for several years partly because the industry uses artificial insemination (AI) almost exclusively, he said.

The dairy industry wanted valuable dairy cows over steers, and as a result, businesses starting offering sexed semen commercially for dairy producers about 10 years ago.

At the same time, the dairy industry developed good, solid relationships with the sexed semen suppliers and businesses.

“Sexed semen is a business like any other business, but the beef industry is becoming more interested in utilizing that technology,” Hall said.

At the same time, sexed semen from more beef bulls is also becoming more commercially available.

Additionally, a seedstock producer could use his own bull if he can work that out with a company that sorts sexed semen, called “custom sorting,” Hall said. That way, the producer is assured of obtaining the high-quality bull genetics he is looking for while still being able to sort for the heifer replacements he needs in his herd.

The University of Idaho has been researching sexed beef semen, and finding some insights into the uses, limitations, opportunities and challenges of the technology.

One challenge for beef producers has been with pregnancy rates, Hall said.

On average, pregnancy rates with sexed semen are about 40 percent, or 20-25 percent lower than females bred by conventional AI semen.

Researchers found that pregnancy rate could be increased through proper handling of sexed semen units, according to Hall.

Whenever a straw is mishandled and starts to unthaw, recrystallization occurs and that affects the fertility of the sperm cells, he said. All along the way, there is a possibility the straw could be mishandled.

Understanding proper techniques and handling is important for everyone to know.

“Education is important so everyone knows how to handle semen units correctly,” Hall said.

It is also important to use an AI expert in his field, so that a beef seedstock or commercial producer has the best chance of success, he added.

“If we can increase the conception rate to sexed semen up to 50-55 percent in enough animals, that would be of great economic benefit to the beef industry,” he said.

If that was followed through by cleanup bulls and the percentage of desired sex increased to 70-75 percent, that would be “close” to the economic threshold, he added.

UI research showed that commercial producers could also take advantage of the improvements in sexed semen technology.

It has to make sense economically for the producer, Hall explained. But commercial producers could also take advantage of certain markets by producing more steers for a uniform trailer load and to meet specific customer needs.

Hall had UI research data involving three loads of similar-quality cattle – two all-steer loads and a mixed load. The heifers were discounted in the mixed load, and the all-steer loads made significantly more than the mixed load.

The all-steer loads earned $5,180 and $6,746 more than the mixed load.

The additional profits were on top of the cost of AI-ing, and the additional cost of sexed semen, Hall said.

If a cattle producer is considering sexed semen, whether it be a seedstock or commercial cattleman, Hall has the following suggestions:

1) Those producers who have been AI-ing successfully for a few years will have the best chance of success with sexed semen. Experience has its place in sexed semen technology, Hall said.

2)Utilizing experienced AI technicians is important.

3) Producers may want to try sexed semen out on a limited basis at first, say using 50 cows, before using it on their whole herd.

4) Handling and thawing of frozen semen is extremely important because the technology is not cheap. On the average, bull sexed semen runs around $25-$35 a unit, but some genetics place it as high as $50-$75 a straw, Hall said.

“For most of us who use AI once a year, we need a refresher programs before we start to use the proper techniques,” he said.

While some research showed sexed semen should be used only on virgin heifers, UI research disputed that, Hall said.

“We found results using virgin heifers was not necessarily more successful and, in fact, mature cows did very well,” he said.

In conclusion, Hall said there are some major seedstock operations utilizing sexed semen for bulls or replacement heifers and the technology will continue to improve as the beef industry utilizes it.