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Time to rethink infertility?

"He was a real beauty but I was amazed at what a setback he gave me."

Joe O'Dwyer is leaning on the gate in his yard just outside Portarlington, Co Laois, looking out at part of the 100-cow suckler herd that he runs with his son Pádraig.

In the paddock beside us is Doon Generator, a 20 month-old stock bull purchased by Joe last December at the Charolais society's Christmas Cracker sale in Carrick-on-Shannon.

"Even though he was the most expensive bull I ever bought at €4,300, I thought he was value because he looked magnificent that day and was junior champion at the show. That's probably why when I introduced myself as the buyer to the breeder – afterwards he corrected me.

"You didn't buy him – you stole him!" he said to me," recalls 71-year-old Joe.

For the next four months the new prize bull was housed in his own pen on a peat bed.

"The first thing I had to do was get him fit for work because he was just a bit too well conditioned at the time of the sale," says Joe.

"So we started reducing his ration a little bit but he always had his fill of silage and bull ration."

By the start of April, Joe was ready to let his bull go to work. He handpicked 12 of his best cows for mating and put them in a nearby pen.

"I was conscious of the fact that he was a Cottage Devon son, who can throw harder calvings, so I was keeping him to the cows for this year. Every day I went down to see what cow was in heat. I'd turn them out into a collecting yard with the bull and saw him mount every one himself," says Joe.

The alarm bells started to ring after the first cow that was served came back on heat 20 days later, according to Joe.

"I didn't panic at that point, but when I got to the seventh cow coming back on heat again, I rang my vet," says O'Dwyer.

"He said that I might be over-reacting since it was such a bad year and that many cows were in bad shape. But I know that my cows are in really good shape because we spent plenty on buying in meal all winter. So I wasn't keen to leave it for another month and I decided to get him fertility tested."

Joe was advised to contact Killeigh-based vet, Donal Lynch, who has been carrying out fertility tests for many years.

"To be honest, I was amazed how simple a process it was," said Joe. "He measured the scrotum and gave him an electric shock to get him to ejaculate and examined the semen under his microscope. The whole process only took about 10 minutes."

The test was conclusive. The bull had a zero score for semen motility, a key indicator of healthy sperm.

Joe couldn't believe it.

"I've been buying bulls in sales and privately all around the country for years and years. I'd say I've bought at least 25 stock bulls from different men, and never once did I get caught with an infertile bull," he says.

However, Joe was lucky, as all bulls sold at a Charolais society sale are insured with FBD against infertility.

"I rang up Nuala in the Charolais society office and in fairness, while she was tough, she was very professional about the whole thing," said Joe.

"But it was only when I sat down to work out the sums that I realised just how severe the cost of having an infertile bull around the place actually was.

"Yes, I was covered for the purchase price of the bull and Nuala gave me an allowance to cover the commission, VAT and transport back here after the sale, but I paid €185 to get the bull insured against TB and death when I got him back here.

"It cost me another €60 to get a vet's cert to certify that he was in good order when I got him home. I spent €50 getting the cows he served scanned, €100 to get him fertility tested and another €50 to transport him over to Tullamore.

"That's a total of €445 on top of the €4,650 that he cost on the day, and that's before you factor in the cost of feeding him for six months and having your cows run around empty for 30 days.

"The vet who did the fertility test said that the cost of a cow being empty is €7/day. If you tot up the whole lot, you run into thousands very quickly."

Joe now feels that fertility testing should be standard at every sale of stock bulls.

"I just don't know why a multi-million-euro business like the Charolais society, or any other breed society here for that matter, would ignore technology like this when it [infertile bulls] can have such a damaging effect on a customer's business.

"I don't blame the breeder in this case. This could happen to anybody. But I do think there should be an onus on all breed societies to start testing rather than leave the likes of me to go through the hardship. And until they do, I'll be buying privately from now on, where I can insist on a fertility test first."

Irish Independent