Sexed semen: Why is it not there yet?

One thing that had been brought up time and time again, as a potential answer to the flood of male dairy calves coming from the expanding dairy industry, is sexed semen.

Again – during an IFA discussion held in The Hotel Kilmore, Co. Cavan, last week – the topic of sexed semen was brought up by farmers and discussed by both the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation (ICBF) and Teagasc.

Speaking at the event, Teagasc’s Dr. Pat Dillon – the head of the Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Programme – agreed with farmers that progress needs to be made on a sexing lab in Ireland – as currently, there is none.

He said:

We tried to fly the semen over to England to be sexed and it was a disaster. The conception rate was a disaster. So, the lab has to be in Ireland.

He also stated that he feels farmers are “underestimating the benefit of sexed semen” – because they are getting a dairy calf versus a beef calf which, he said: “Is of no value.

“I think if we can solve the conception rate, it is a no brainer for all dairy farmers to use it; because of the relative difference between what a good dairy calf is worth – last year they were worth about €250 – and what a male calf is worth.

“The differential is big, if the technology works,” he added.

While going on to say that 24% of semen used by dairy herds in the UK last year was sexed and in Denmark, from 2021 only sexed semen will be allowed to be used on Jersey cows.

However, he said that the issue Teagasc has found, with sexed semen, is around the handling of the semen. He stated: “The handling is going to influence the performance of sexed semen.”

Also shedding some light on the issue, Sean Coughlan, CEO of the ICBF, said: “The challenge is we don’t have a lab in the country. So, if you want to get significant volumes of semen from bulls you have to ship them to the UK.

“That is an expensive process and the AI companies are not fully sure that there is a market for the semen, should they do that. So, there are significant logistical and financial challenges there at the moment.”

Responding to the question: ‘Why are the best bulls not being sexed?’ he said: “The actual sexing process costs the same per straw. But, the number of straws you get is three or four times more for conventional semen, than it is for the sexed semen.

So, there is an opportunity cost on the AI companies. One jump from a bull will get between 200 and 250 straws for sexed versus four times as many for conventional.

Another challenge he mentioned was, because sexing cost more than conventional, the cost of discarding those straws if the bull drops or if there is no demand for that bull, is an issue.

“That is why there has to be a broader industry solution to the sexing problem; the AI companies can’t necessarily do it on their own,” he added.

Pat reiterated this, when he said: “The AI companies will not send their top bulls over to England to be sexed, in case they can’t bring them back.”

Aswell, he also agreed that “the best genetics need to be available to farmers”.

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