More beef semen used in dairy cows

A Holstein dairy cow raises her head above the crowd at a Puerto Rican dairy which has benefited from the Emergency Conservation Program. Recent market moves—the 2014 shortage of beef cattle and a current glut on the milk market—has seen a lot of dairy cows bred using beef semen. Be warned: the trend is here to stay.

Dairies nationwide are increasingly using more beef semen to artificially inseminate their dairy cows. This serves two important economic functions for dairy farmers; cutting the number of replacement Holstein heifers being produced at a time when a glut of milk has lowered milk prices, and capturing the improved value of crossbred beef/dairy cull calves in the beef market.

One dairy operator taking advantage of such an artificial insemination (AI) strategy is Bernie Teunissen, who has operated Beranna Dairy in Caldwell, ID, with his wife Anna and three children since June 2000.

Like a growing number of his counterparts, Teunissen has started using a combination of “sexed semen” from dairy bulls to AI his most advanced genetic virgin heifers and breeding other dairy cows with beef semen.

An Angus crossbreed cull calf is worth more to dairy farmers to sell to cattle feeders than pure Holstein cull calf. The value difference stems from the difference in dressing percentage and feed efficiency. While pure Holstein and other dairy steers are making up a growing portion of the fed cattle industry, dairy breeds typically dress lower than beef breeds and require much longer time on feed. A typical Angus can have 10 percent more meat than a Holstein.

“Right now, Holstein bulls are only worth $30 while an Angus female or male is $100 to $130 or more, depending on your region,” Teunissen told the Western Livestock Journal.

In recent years when the drought caused a shortage in the beef herd, dairy operators saw an opportunity to use sexed dairy semen to create their dairy heifer replacements, and beef semen on lower genetic valued or older animals. This puts more beef in the pipeline, explained Steve Faber, an Arizona dairy consultant who works in conjunction with Select Sires, one of the largest AI/genetics companies in North America serving both dairy and beef clients. Faber specifically serves as a dairy cow evaluator and district sales manager.

“By using sexed semen from dairy bulls, we can manage the amount of beef semen used on dairy animals. This is something that will be here to stay in varying degrees,” Faber added, noting that most virgin dairy heifers are bred using sexed dairy semen, but not all dairy cows are.

“Now that we've got so much milk overproduced, it probably won’t make the beef guys happy,” Faber admitted.

Dairy trade magazines are devoting more coverage to using the beef semen strategy, and more dairies are using it.

“It really is a big deal for the entire beef industry because it increases the amount of Angus on the market even if they are crossbred because they have more value than Holstein steers, which will be decreasing,” Teunissen said.

Sexed semen and dairy AI

Faber told WLJ that most sexed semen is done for dairies and can be expensive, although the process also is used for beef cattle. “Everybody’s different. Every management is different.”

As opposed to conventional AI semen, sexed semen achieves 90 percent purity of a specific sex by treating sperm with a fluorescent dye. X and Y chromosome-bearing sperm are sorted with a flow cytometer/cell sorter based on intensity of fluorescence following exposure to a laser. Sexed dairy semen gives dairy operators a 90 percent chance of getting heifer calves as opposed to bull calves.

However, while the conception rate for dairy heifers has been high, sexed semen by nature has a lower conception rate. The sexing process can have a negative effect on sperm viability.

Like in the beef industry, the dairy industry has been using AI as a way to improve the quality of the dairy herd.

“It’s been really substantial. I don't think anyone could survive in this industry without artificial insemination,” Teunissen said. “Advancement in production per cow ultimately pays the bills.”

Recent market factors have also changed how dairies use live bulls. Though not common on dairies simply because they are dangerous and hard on equipment, many farmer-owned bulls were slaughtered when feed got expensive. Shifting land values in traditional dairy areas of the country such as Southern and central California have additionally driven dairies into some hotter climates. Hot weather also can cut a live bull’s reproductive performance below what artificial insemination can provide.

The fact dairy operators can buy the genetics they want via AI also eliminates the risk of merely hoping a yard bull is doing its breeding responsibilities properly, Faber added.

While beef producers use AI to quickly select for things like ribeye area, marbling, and maternal traits in beef herds, dairy herds have sharply improved butter fat and protein content of milk with a keen eye to genetic management via AI. Like any beef operation, Teunissen said his dairy strives to keep production costs low and maintain liquidity so it can ride out the milk market’s swings.

“We’ve gained a more efficient amount of milk being produced with less input. Artificial insemination has reduced the carbon footprint of making milk remarkably the last 60 years,” Teunissen said.

Teunissen is a third-generation descendant of dairy farming Dutch immigrants. His parents from The Netherlands started dairy operations in Orange County, CA, during the 1940s and settled in Chino about 1960.

He told WLJ that father began using AI in the early-to-mid-1970s when milk production averaged 55-58 pounds per day. Now dairy cows can supply as much as 90-100 pounds per day. Following his father’s example, Teunissen also has used AI since starting on his own in 1989. Today, Beranna Dairy milks 3,900 cows. Teunissen’s sons Derek and B.J. will become the fourth generation to operate a dairy, incorporating the latest technology.

AI consolidation

“Basically, there are about four major players left in the artificial insemination industry when it comes to dairy,” Teunissen told WLJ.

He said Beranna Dairy uses the services of Alta Genetics—one of the largest privately-owned AI companies in the world, reaching 14 retail markets and more than 85 wholesale markets—for ensuring its dairy cattle are well monitored. Alta Genetics keeps extensive genetic information on cows, tracking multi-generations of lineage to prevent inbreeding, looking for specific strengths and weaknesses.

“We really give them a lot of latitude to make decisions, and they do a great job. They have really excelled from a service standpoint,” Teunissen said.

Like some beef operations, some dairies are involved in embryo flushing and transfers, which can be expensive and entail injecting milk cows with drugs to cause super ovulation and increased embryo production, but Beranna Dairy does not engage in such techniques. That requires a lot of veterinary work, he noted.

Select Sires, where Faber works, also specializes in providing highly fertile semen to beef and dairy livestock breeders in more than 95 countries. The company began in 1961 when four farmer-owned artificial insemination cooperatives in Ohio, Illinois, and Kentucky established a semen exchange program. Four years later, Central Ohio Breeding Association, Kentucky Artificial Breeding Association, Northern Illinois Breeding Cooperative, and Southern Illinois Breeding Association formally incorporated Select Sires and consolidated their production facilities in Columbus, OH.

One of its largest expansions happened in 1969 when six AI cooperatives from Utah, Tennessee, Michigan, Mississippi, and Virginia joined the federation. It now consists of nine farmer-owned and operated cooperatives. Constructed in 1972, its site northwest of Columbus, OH, is the world’s largest bull housing facility of its kind.

“With the ability to measure we can manage much better, improve our herds much faster and achieve results much sooner,” Faber said.

The bottom line for artificial insemination is to match females with better sires for improved results. “I think quality is what is driving everything,” Faber said. “Success is in the details.”

Mark Mendiola, WLJ correspondent

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