Some folks look at the higher price and lower conception rates associated with sexed semen and assume it’s too costly. That conclusion is not only wrong, but it misses the reason for using sexed semen.

Yes, sexed semen costs more than conventional semen. It’s common to see a bull’s sexed semen price as much as twice the cost of his conventional semen price. For example, a bull’s semen sexed to produce heifers might cost $35, while his conventional semen is only $20.

And, yes, conception rates are lower for sexed semen. According to Dustin Dean, director of beef programs for Sexing Technologies, you can expect conception rates with sexed semen to be about 85% of those obtained with conventional semen. So, if you get 90% conception with conventional semen, you should anticipate a 76.5% conception rate with sexed semen.

The reason for the lower conception rate revolves around the concentration of sperm cells loaded in a conventional semen straw compared to a sexed semen sample. Dean explains there are about 30 million sperm cells in a conventional straw of semen, and about 2.1 million of the highest quality sperm cells in a straw of sexed semen. The reason is cost; a single sexing machine goes for more than $300,000.

Despite the higher cost and lower conception rates, however, sexed semen can make a world of economic sense. That is unless you’re happy with the 50-50 roll of the heifer/bull coin tossed by Mother Nature. In that case, obviously, it makes little sense to pay more for the chance.

It’s about gender value

On the other hand, if you want more females than bulls, or vice versa, it’s because one or the other has more value to you or someone else. That’s the key. That’s what must be quantified.

Jim McGrann refers to it as the gender value difference. McGrann is a noted livestock economist and owner of Ranch Management Economist, a ranch business consulting firm. He developed an economic decision aid for Sexing Technologies to help producers determine the value of using sexed semen. The basic math is straightforward.

Suppose you want more heifers than bull calves because a heifer is worth $1,250 to you and a steer calf weighing 550 lbs. at $1.50/cwt. is worth $825. You figure conventional semen will give you half of each. Thus, the average value of calves is $1,037.50 ([50% X $1,250] + [50% X $825]). If you could get 90% heifer calves instead, the average calf value would be $1,207.50 ([90% X $1,250] + 10% X $825]). In this example, the difference in average value, the gender value difference is $170/calf.

Compared to using conventional semen, McGrann says using sexed semen makes economic sense for beef and dairy producers when the gender value difference is at least $150. That’s without considering genetic progress and other indirect values producers may attach to having more calves of one gender than another. Plus, McGrann emphasizes semen costs represent a small percentage of the total breeding cost. If you’re unfamiliar with it, sexed semen is purchased based on the concentration of sperm cells it contains for a particular gender. For example, 90% heifer semen means it contains at least that percentage of heifer sperm cells, meaning you’ve got at least a 90% chance of getting a heifer. Semen that is 75% heifer semen means you’ve got at least a 75% chance and so on. Incidentally, producers who want semen sexed from their own bulls can choose the gender concentration. The more concentrated, the more it costs.

Dean explains there are three ways producers obtain sexed semen today:

  • ;From commercial bull studs
  • From another producer who has collected and had semen sorted for his own bull,
  • By collecting and having semen sorted on your own bull.

By way of history, USDA developed and patented the technology for sorting live sperm in the late 1980s. Originally, USDA licensed several companies to utilize the technology. Genetic Resources International (now Sexing Technologies) at Navasota, TX, was one of them. Through attrition and acquisition, Sexing Technologies is now the exclusive licensee.

Breed determines beef use

Sexed semen is commonly used across the dairy industry, but remains something of a novelty in beef circles. Part of the disparity in use has to do with the sheer volume of artificial insemination (AI) in the dairy industry – 90-95% of the cows –compared to about 5% in beef cows.

“We have two breeding seasons in the beef industry,” Dean says. “Dairy producers have 52; they must have cows lactating every day, so they have to breed cows every week.”

However, Dean says much of the low, but growing, use of sexed semen by beef producers stems from misconceptions about the cost relative to the value mentioned above, as well as enduring myths (see “Sexing myths & facts”).

Dairy producers utilize heifer sexed semen almost exclusively. They use it to breed heifers in order to create the next generation of replacements. In the beef industry, Dean says use and gender choice varies widely, mainly dependent on breed (See “Use Of Sexed Semen In Dairy Cows Could Help Beef Calf Numbers” in the May issue of BEEF).

More Hereford heifer semen is sold than bull semen, for example. Folks with black cows are using it to build black baldy heifers; those with Brahman cows are using it to create “tiger-stripe” replacement females.

On the other hand, Dean explains most of the Charolais sexed semen is bull semen used by producers with black cattle seeking to build the “smokies” coveted by calf and feeder cattle order buyers.
Both sexes of Angus semen are in demand. Some producers use heifer semen to build replacements. Others use bull semen on select cows to grow bull offerings while increasing the odds of breeding the next genetic curve bender.

Whatever the breed or reason for using sexed semen, Dean explains, “You must be effective with conventional semen in order to take advantage of the benefits offered by sexed semen.”

Sidebar: Sexing myths & facts

  • A bull produces more heifers or more bulls.
    False. That might be the case at home, but the percentage of bull sperm and heifer semen contained in a bull’s ejaculate never varies much more than 50/50.
  • The technology isn’t proven.
    False. According to dairy producers who use millions of units of sexed semen annually.
  • Every bull’s semen can be sexed.
    False. Most can, but a few can’t due to inherent abnormalities in the sperm cells.
  • Inherent conception rates associated with sexed semen are static.
    False. Conception rates with sexed semen are increasing through more effective management and technique, and also through indirect selection for bulls with higher quality semen.
  • Bull semen or heifer semen swims faster than the other.
    False.