Sex-sorted semen has become big business for the Semex Alliance since it became the first Canadian A.I. company to obtain the technology and begin marketing it.
Following research and development at L'Alliance Boviteq, the Semex Alliance's Research and Development Centre in Saint-Hyacinthe, Que., two semen sorting machines were purchased and in late 2006 production of sexed semen began.
Now, after two years, the semen is being marketed internationally, four more machines have been purchased and the focus is on meeting the demand. The new sorting machines will triple the output, says Paul Stewart, Communications and Genetic Programs Supervisor with Eastern Breeders in Kemptville, "but the biggest limitation is keeping up with the demand."
" It's clear the demand is there but the biggest challenge is the cost of the technology and improving the output of semen. Current output is seven or eight doses an hour at most," he says. The sexing machines use lasers and fluorescent dyes to sort the semen. The X chromosome, which has more DNA content, absorbs more dye and this is detected when the semen is run through the Flow Cytometre.
Although it cannot yet replace conventional semen and is limited to a number of mainly Jersey and Holstein sires it does have proven advantages in the insemination of first-calf heifers.
Sexed semen is not for every animal. The best candidates are well-grown heifers with good body condition in a natural heat. Semex does not recommend it for lactating cows, cows to be flushed for embryo transfer and cows on a synchronized breeding program due to reduced conception rates. Field trials indicate a conception rate of 45 per cent in first-calf heifers. Conventional semen is 55 per cent. The frozen semen is packaged in 0.25 ml straws and price per dose ranges from $50 to $70. However, sexed semen is not a mature technology and Stewart expects the future will hold better results in older cows.
And now is not the time to cut corners in a new market. The Semex Alliance is going to great lengths to utilize impeccable quality controls and is looking for a balance between short-term sales and long-term relationships. "It's cutting edge technology, Stewart says, "and we're glad to be at the forefront of it."
Sires choices are still somewhat limited. Not all bulls are suitable candidates either because of availability or because some semen is simply better able to hold up to the process. As well, the demand for some bulls is just so high that it makes more sense to meet that demand with conventional semen, he says.
Semex's research and development arm in Saint-Hyacinthe continues to test semen to find suitable bulls. Location is also a factor as the process requires fresh semen and runners are routinely delivering fresh semen to the Quebec facility. Currently, semen is only available from bulls housed at Saint-Hyacinthe and Eastern Breeders in Kempville and several bulls have been moved to the two eastern units to accommodate the demand.
It's not an exaggeration to say that fresh semen is flying up the Trans-Canada Highway and sorted semen shooting out the door.
When, and if, sexed beef semen will be available from Semex remains to be seen. "There are only so many hours in a day," says Stewart and they are concentrating on their core market. They could be in a position to offer the product to beef producers but right now the focus is on dairy.
Blair Murray, OMAFRA's Dairy Genetic Improvement Specialist in Kempville, sees real benefit in expansion situations where farmers are going to need a lot more cows in the next year or two.
After two years on the market most farmers are in the consideration stage and looking at how they can use sexed semen in their breeding program. "Lots are considering it," he says.
Calf death losses of six to seven per cent and 13- to 14-month calving intervals add up, said Murray, and farmers may need more than that 50 per cent bull/ heifer ratio for replacements. "It's a tool to work with."
He also sees potential for use in raising replacement heifers. With good markets for heifers, sexed semen could be a sound move. At $2,000 to $2,500 a head for replacements it could give a reasonable return on investment. Now that animals have picked-up in value Murray anticipates more farmers will be looking at that.
Murray doesn't see the technology limited to commercial herds. There is potential for breeders if, for instance, they've had a run of bull calves or are looking to expand the herd. For that small group of upper end cows in the herd embryo transfer would still be the preferred technology but sexed semen wouldn't be out of the picture. Depending on the program there could still be a place for sexed semen. There is some sacrifice in conception rate but if used on fertile heifers in good condition and with a good breeding program it is possible to get a good heifer out of a good heifer, he says.
According to John Hedden, EBI's Market Development Specialist in Renfrew and Lanark County, it has been farmers with commercial herds who have shown the most interest initially. A couple of dozen farms are using it now in his region, many to raise their own replacement heifers. "They just never seem to have enough from within their own herd," he says.
He's also seeing it used on heifers coming off grass. They and their heifer calves will be fresh when it's needed most. With milk production still seasonal to a degree, producing enough in the fall is easy to say but not so easy to do, he says. Four or five more fresh heifers will help address that need for fall milk.
Hedden expects that depressed bull calf prices will also bring an increase in the demand for sexed semen. For the extra $20 or $30 per dose farmers are going to get a lot more profit out of a young open or bred heifer.
The calving ease of a smaller heifer calf could also be money in the bank for farmers. A big, bull calf and a long recovery could drop a first lactation of 10,000 kilos to 7,000 kilos which spells significant lost revenue. A couple of thousand dollars buys a lot of sexed semen, Hedden adds.
Although Semex promotes realistic expectations of this emerging technology by recommending use only on fertile, first-calf heifers, Hedden has seen farmers in his region use it with good results on older cows. And, in spite of the risk and given the costs involved in preparing a cow for embryo transfer, one of his clients did used sexed semen on a heifer he was flushing. The risky move paid off with nine of 10 eggs fertilized.