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Friday 2 December 2016

Sexing technology will revolutionise livestock sector

Published 06/12/2012 | 05:00

Ever heard of sexed semen? No, not sexy semen. That's an article for another section of the paper.

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Sexed semen is the latest technology that is poised to revolutionise Ireland's multi-billion euro livestock sector.

In fairness, there have been a couple of false dawns on this particular development. Farmers have long been promised that they would be able to choose the sex of the calf that they were artificially inseminating their cow with.

The process of actually sorting billions of male sperm from female sperm hinges on the fact that female sperm contains 3.8pc more DNA than the male equivalent in cattle.

By applying a kind of an electric charge to one or the other, magnet-like cells are able to divert all the sperm of a particular sex to one side.

The company that owns the intellectual property behind the process, US based Sexing Technologies, claim that it is 93pc accurate.

However, the technology has been plagued with problems, mainly in relation to the lower conception rates that came with semen that had been shoved through various filtering processes.

And there is no unhappier farmer than one whose prize cow is lying idle when she should be busy producing the next generation.

But if the technology is perfected, it would be a real game changer for Irish farming.

For a start, dairy farmers would be able to avoid the situation where they are producing unwanted male calves. Bull calves bred from dairy genetics are cursed by the entire beef sector.

Their genetic make-up means they are more akin to a greyhound than a boxer, and this inability to put on plentiful muscle makes them unviable for fattening for beef.

Welfare time-bomb

This is a welfare time-bomb as some farmers in the UK and beyond have resorted to shooting these calves at birth when demand for dairy calves is particularly low.

But with sexed semen, the dairy farmer can put just enough of his cows in calf to a dairy bull with female sexed semen to generate enough replacements to come into the milking herd nearly three years later.

The rest of the cows can be put in-calf to male sexed semen from a beef bull, ensuring that the combination of male testosterone and beef genetics will more than make up for the mother's lack of 'beefability'.

In fact, some cattle breeding experts predict that if sexed semen takes off, there will be little or no need for a beef herd at all. At the moment, Ireland has about 900,000 beef cows along with another 1.1m dairy cows.

However, if the predicted increase in dairy output materialises when milk quotas go in two years time, then dairy cow numbers could increase up to 1.4m cows.

If only a third of these are required to produce replacement stock for the dairy herd, there are still about 900,000 cows available to produce beef – plenty to keep the likes of McDonalds in burgers for as long as they want.

This is blasphemous talk to your average suckler cow farmer off course, who views himself as one of the cornerstones of Irish agriculture.

And the meat processors who've been carefully building premium brands on the back of traditional beef breeds such as Angus and Hereford won't be best pleased with the idea of the majority of their supplies coming from the dairy sector.

Economics

But like most things, it'll come down to the economics. If the most efficient way to produce beef is from the dairy herd and sexed semen allows dairy farmers to produce animals with enough fattening potential, then that's where it will come from.

And God knows that the beef sector, which is almost entirely reliant on farm subsidies to stay in business, could benefit from some new efficiencies.

The State-owned agricultural research agency, Teagasc, along with the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation have announced plans to roll out the biggest field trial ever conducted on Irish farms in order to test the viability of sexed semen over the next couple of months. It will involve hundreds of farms and up to 15,000 cows.

But the impact of the technology, if proven viable, will effect almost every farm in the country.

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