Sexed semen or sorted semen, as it is quite often referred to, can have numerous benefits for suckler farmers, writes CAFRE beef & sheep adviser, Noel McNeill.
The ability to control the gender of the calves being produced on a farm is a management aid for producing a product the market demands.
The dairy industry has embraced the use of sorted semen and are achieving significant progress.
One of the main drivers for this in the dairy herd is the fact the male dairy calves were seen as a by-product, and increased demand for this semen has improved the gender accuracy by up to 95%, which a trial conducted by AFBI, saw.
Another positive impact of the use of sorted semen is the increasing speed of genetic progress within a herd, especially when used on maiden heifers, by reducing the generation interval.
One of the main reasons people will use sorted semen is to produce a female replacement from high genetic merit maternal bulls mated with the best maternal cows in the herd. This can be a great way of producing replacements for a closed herd or for selling as breeding stock.
Male sexed semen is also available, and this would be less well- known in the industry. This could have major benefits for a farmer producing bulls or steers for the weanling sales or someone who is operating a suckler to bull beef system.
The ability to produce bulls from a high genetic merit terminal sire can be exploited to increase the value of male progeny for the beef supply chain.
AFBI has completed trials with sexed semen with positive results. In addition, they have observed the best success with sexed semen on natural heat observation and insemination compared to synchronisation programmes.
AFBI has trialled the use of female sexed semen on maiden heifers with measurable success, as female calves have smaller birth weights and are easier to calf.
Also, because they are heifers producing heifers, it is increasing the speed of genetic improvement within the herd. AFBI trials have also shown positive results from use of male sorted semen within the herd.
If AI has not been used on the farm before, it may be advisable to use conventional semen first to see what conception rates can be achieved.
If a herd is not seeing a conception rate of 60% or better, then a few technical areas should be looked at before using sorted semen.
Breeding animals should be up-to-date on all planned health treatments and vaccinations, such as Bovine Viral Diarrhoea (BVD) and Leptospirosis, well in advance of the breeding season.
Pre-breeding scanning will allow you to pick up on problem cows before the breeding season starts. Cows should be on a rising plane of nutrition after calving with a target body condition score of 3 at the time of breeding.
No major changes in diet should happen in the month before breeding.
You can do a herd trace element profile by using blood tests to make sure there are no issues, or to inform the decision to supplement as needed. Stress should be kept to a minimum when handling animals for insemination as this can affect the conception rate.
Conception rates and costs
Sorted semen has a slightly lower conception rate than conventional semen, about 90% of the herd normal conception rate local AI companies are quoting.
Thus, if the conception rate to conventional semen is 80%, the conception rate to sorted semen would be 72%.
As there are no facilities currently in Northern Ireland for sorting semen, it is important to get it ordered early ( 1 or 2 months in advance). Meanwhile, a semen sorting lab will open in Cork later this year, as reported by us here.
Sorted semen is more expensive than conventional semen, but this extra cost can be offset by the fact that a maternal bred bull calf is worth less than a terminal bull calf, so reducing the amount of these will improve profits.
Sorted semen allows for more precision in breeding a suckler herd. It provides farmers with two avenues to focus breeding on producing better terminal animals for the beef supply chain or producing breeding females for retaining or selling in breeding sales.
Farmers should take time to look at a bull’s Estimated Breeding Values (EBVs) before selection and pick the most suitable bulls for the females in their herd. Some of the higher demand bulls may not be available as it takes three times as much semen to produce one straw of sorted semen than conventional.
This; however, may not be the case in the years to come as breeding companies are starting to move more in this direction. Improving genetics will improve profit in a suckler herd, and sorted semen is another tool a farmer has to address this.
If a farm is seeing good success in using conventional AI, there is no reason why they shouldn’t try sorted semen and see the advantages it can deliver within their herd.