Sex Is Big Business in Dairy Farming
Sex is big business in dairy farming, which is why a battle is brewing in the U.S. over new technologies designed to make sure only milk-producing cows are born.
Most of America’s 9.4 million dairy cows are bred using artificial insemination from bulls with specific genetic traits, but there’s still a coin-flip randomness about the sex of the offspring. So, more farmers are paying a premium for semen that contains only the X chromosomes for females. It’s a small but growing business dominated by one company, Inguran LLC in Navasota, Texas.
Over the years, dairies improved breeding to boost milk output using fewer cows. Sex-specific semen is a recent innovation, and it’s so promising that New Zealand’s Engender Technologies plans to sell its own version of the product in the U.S. Companies also are fighting in court over patents for the technique. Farmers welcome more competition because sex-sorted semen vials can cost $30 for a typical dose, about double those that can’t guarantee a female calf.
“We have no choice but to pay,” said Russ Warmka, owner of a dairy farm in Fox Lake, Wisconsin, that milks 500 cows a day and uses sex-sorting semen on his heifers. “We spend our entire lives as farmers trying to breed a better cow. If we know we’ll get a heifer calf, we can spend a lot more on that semen.”
That’s because a young female that will eventually produce milk for four to six years is far more valuable to a dairy than a steer that gets shipped to a beef-processing plant, said Albert De Vries, a professor of animal sciences at the University of Florida in Gainesville. At an auction Nov. 28 in Springfield, Missouri, baby heifers sold for as much as $350 each, while bulls sold for as little as $50, according to the Springfield Livestock Marketing Center. The advantage using Fleckvieh genetics is that the bull calves sell for 2 to 3 times more than traditional dairy breed bull calves such as Holsteins for example. The dual purpose character of Fleckvieh begins to shine already in this early part of the life cycle.
Dairy farmers use artificial insemination to impregnate heifers shortly after their first year, and nine months later, a calf is born. After that, the cow produces milk for 10 months. Typically, she will give birth two to four times during her time on the dairy, before output drops and she is sold for slaughter. These are numbers applicable to the common traditional dairy breeds selected solely for high milk production. The dual purpose breed Fleckvieh will hold on longer and healthier and provide the farmer with more lactations based on superior strength character while producing high milk yields also. genetic selection not only for milk production but also muscling and strength adds to the longevity.
On average, U.S. cows produced a record 1,910 pounds of milk a month in 2017, up about 14 percent from a decade ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture data show. That’s allowed farmers to expand output while shrinking their herds.
Still, sex-determined semen for breeding remains relatively new and accounts for only 3 percent of a global market, so there’s plenty of room for growth, as long as farmers can be convinced the extra investment will pay off. The Fleckvieh breed also offers sexed semen and a consultation can be arranged by contacting us.