The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears

Episode 02 - Sexed semen - are you making the most of it?

April 08, 2021 VikingGenetics Season 1 Episode 2
The BreedCast - innovative dairy breeding in your ears
Episode 02 - Sexed semen - are you making the most of it?
Show Notes Transcript

The use of sexed semen in dairy farming is growing exponentially around the world. You may be already using sexed semen in your herd. But are you making the most of it? 

We've invited two breeding experts to share their best tips on how you can optimise your dairy business with sexed semen. They present the latest tools for a better breeding strategy—and predict an interesting future for the sexed semen technology.

 

Guests:

Claus Langdahl, Senior Breeding Manager VikingHolstein, VikingGenetics

Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager VikingJersey, VikingGenetics

 

Host:

Louise Rønn Svane

Sexed semen is becoming increasingly popular amongst dairy farmers around the world. 2020 was another record breaking year with more doses sold worldwide than ever before. The benefits of sexed semen include an up to 90% chance of a heifer calf from your best females and fewer unwanted bull calves. But what do you need to be aware of when using sexed semen in your herd? And how do you make the most of this innovative technology? To give us the best tips and insights into sexed semen, I've invited two experts to join me in the studio; Claus Langdahl, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingHolstein and Peter Larson, Senior Breeding Manager for VikingJersey.

 

This is the Breed Cast produced by VikingGenetics. I'm your host Louise Roenn Svane.

 

So, hello and welcome Claus Langdahl and Peter Larson. Thank you for being with us today.

 

Thank you.

 

Great to have you in the studio.

Claus, if we start with you. The use of sexed semen is growing rapidly amongst dairy farmers around the world. Why do you think that is?

 

Yes, you are absolutely right that the use is definitely growing a lot these years and I'm convinced that it is because they see there's in general a great trust to the product as it is it's becoming a well-known product that a lot of people have experience with and they see the value of it. There is a lot of opportunities for a farmer when using sexed semen in his farm management. First of all there's a lot of good opportunities for him using sexed semen.

 

But also genetic progress is a thing you can optimize with this. Plenty of good reasons to see the growth in the sexed semen use.

 

Peter, you speak to Jersey farmers around the world and you've gone to visit many farms in more than 50 countries. 70% of all doses sold for a VikingJersey in 2020 was sexed semen. That's way more than half and a new record. Why is that?

 

Well, the main reason for Jersey breeders to really have adapted to this sexed semen strategy is that the bull calves have very low value. So purebred Jersey bull calves are actually unwanted.

 

They create costs for the dairy farmers so we started the discussion about sexed semen nearly 20 years ago. 

Back in 2004, we had the first sexed semen produced - actually produced in England as we were not able to produce it here. But since 2006 we've been producing here. We had the aim of replacing all the bull calves with heifer calves or more valuable crosses beef crosses.

That's something that the farmers have adapted - especially here at home market where you mentioned now more than 70% of the Jersey semen sold is sexed. But also at our international or global markets.

It's not only the unwanted bull calves, but it's also the demand for heifers or livestock around especially Europe that has created more interest in breeding extra offspring for sale.

 

Now when sexed semen first came out, quite a few farmers were worried about the conception rate. Claus, where is that today?

 

Yes that's what we saw in the beginning. Of course, this was a new product and we did also see that there was a lower conception rate with the sexed semen and to be honest that's also what we see today. 

But we have, during these years, there has been a very nice improvement in the conception rate from the sexed semen. We do hear that from farmers saying that they tried sexed semen years back and they are a bit reluctant to that today. But it's a very much highly improved product today.

If we look at ratios then if you compare a sexed dose with a conventional dose, then in the beginning it might be at around 80% fertile compared to a conventional dose. Today we can easily promise 90%.

I would also say if you are farmer and you are very skilled in reproduction in your herd, you can expect almost the same conception rate from sexed semen as you can with conventional.

 

I also hear from some farmers that they are hesitant around using sexed semen because the price of a typical sexed semen dose is about twice as much as a conventional. What would be your input to farmers hesitating due to the price of the dose?

 

I think you will say that there will be cases where farmers are actually not in a situation where they should use sexed semen. Both because of this a little bit lower male fertility in the semen dose, but also if the farmer is poor on reproduction in his herd. It might be just a transition in his herd. It can also be a long term issue. Then he shouldn't use sexed semen.

With an average to good reproduction, you can easily gain this in your herd - this extra cost to a semen dose that’s a minor thing compared to the value and all the opportunities you get in your herd from having the ability to use sexed semen.

 

Sexed semen is definitely getting increasingly popular. Now we'll look at how to get the most of it.

Claus, when you speak to for instance a Holstein farmer looking to use sexed semen. What are the first things you recommend that he takes into consideration?

 

I think that the starting point is in many cases for the farmer to realize what does he actually want in his herd.

To make a strategy, to be sure that the breeding work he does is connected to what he actually wants from his herd.

There's a lot of different ways to go in this so he should be very open about what strategy he actually wants to have in this. 

Using the sexed semen that gives you plenty of opportunities; you can start to breed more intensively in your herd on your best females.

You can get a higher genetic gain in your herd.

That's one of the of the good elements.

But you can also use beef semen as Peter mentioned on optimized beef production on in your herd from the genetically poorest dairy animals and so there is a lot of benefits you can have.

That's all depending on your strategy in your herd.

 

We heard from Jersey before it's 70% doses sold last year, what does the sexed semen curve look like for Holstein?

 

The slope is not as high as for the Jersey but it's growing.

Also the use we see in Denmark is around 25% both for Holstein and for the VikingRed breed so it is also growing at just like Holstein just from a little bit lower level.

 

Peter, when you again go around visiting the farms, what examples have you seen of sexed semen really boosting and making a difference in a Jersey dairy business?

 

Well, I've seen different scenarios because conditions are different in different countries, but looking at the home market first there are farmers that have really focused on breeding extra offspring for sale. Some use 100% or nearly 100% sexed semen and they sell heifers for the European market and that's very good business.

Some choose a totally different strategy using only a ratio of sexed semen you need to reproduce your own herd and that means you might only use 30% sexed semen on your best animals, and then 70% of the poorest animals in the herd are bred to beef.

You also see that in different countries - in US for instance where the demand for Jersey has been very  huge over the last five to 10 years.

The increase has been extreme and many US farmers use up to 80-90% sexed semen because there is a good market.

We see the same in Norway. Norway is part of this breeding cooperation we have for Jerseys. And in Norway 98% of the Jersey semen is sexed semen.

Actually, a world record the whole population uses nearly solely sexed semen.

 

Why should I even use conventional semen when we're hearing about this, Claus?

 

I would say in some cases you maybe shouldn't or in many cases you shouldn’t, but I think we should still be open to say that there can be issues at a herd where it is too costly to use the sexed semen.

It might just be due to some issues – due to the environment or the management or whatever for a few months or whatever in the herd but it can also be on the long term.

Highly related to the farmer’s ability for reproduction in his herd. There can be cases where the conventional semen is the best choice.

 

There is a little bit of a difference between our breeds because for the Jersey breeds the value of the purebred bull calf is so low that the profitability of the herd is harmed more if you breed those purebred bull calves.

If you have, as Claus mentions, females that do does not work with sexed semen then I prefer to use beef on those.

So strategies are a little bit different and for Jerseys there will be a ban or more or less for culling a newborn bull calves.

Some farmers have been practicing that until now but it will stop and it has stopped in many countries. You cannot kill the newborn bull calves so you need to act differently when you breed Jerseys.

 

Sexed semen can be a real tool for that.

So in order to get optimal use of sexed semen, what I'm hearing is that I need to somehow find a way to identify and categorise my best females. Find out who they are.

 

Peter, how do I as a farmer know which heifers and which cows are the best ones to focus my breeding on and use sexed semen for?

 

In our conditions it's quite easy and simple because we have breeding values.

And we use the breeding values to rank the females here in the herds. So, the better females in the herd, and they are the ones that should breed the next generation of cows in your herd. And you can make calculations showing that 30% will be enough to reproduce yourself but if you do not have breeding values - like what we've seen in France and Norway.

Until now they did not have any breeding values. That are also counts for many other countries - they do not have breeding values on their animals and then we of course recommend that you do genomic testing.

Genomic testing adds extra reliability to the breeding values so you get a better selection tool – a more reliable selection tool.

And if you have nothing then in my mind the option is to genomic test. You can do genomic testing in our system for the Nordic countries and please investigate that more.

It's a good option for you.

 

How do I actually genomically test my animals? How does it work?

 

It's a matter of us getting some DNA.

It can be DNA from tissue. It can be DNA from blood. It can be DNA from hair.

So it's just a matter of sending in DNA samples to us and then we have cooperation with a laboratory here and then we'll do the testing and measuring the breeding values.

 

Claus, once I know who my best females are from these tests, how do I select the best bulls with the sexed semen?

 

In general, there's no difference how you select your bulls if you use conventional or sexed semen.

I think that it depends on what you want in your herd.

And you should choose among the best bulls that fit the criteria that you need for your herd.

Then of course there is always the issue that there can be bulls where you do not have the offer to actually purchase the sexed semen and that's of course our obligation to make sure that we have sexed semen available and conventional - both products available for the farmers so they can freely make that choice what kind of product they want in this.

So, the choice of the genetic you bring into your herd is the same. You are just more sure to get the  heifer calf that you need for your future production by using the sexed dose.

 

Peter, the sexed doses in this case are called X-Vik and Y-Vik. What is what and when should I use what, so to speak?

 

X-Vik it is the product giving you heifer calves. Y-Vik is the product giving you bull calves.

And Y-Vik is normally only when we are talking about beef breeds.

You can also have Jersey Y-Vik - we use that when we make flushes sometime to produce bulls for our own breeding program, but Y-Vik is actually a beef product.

And when you pick and choose you use X-Vik on your better animals in the herd and Y-Vik on the poor. And then as mentioned before, some use 30% X-Vik on the better and 70% beef on the rest.

I think the trend will be that we will be going for 30-40% X-Vik on the better.

That would be our national strategy or our strategy in the Nordic countries.

And beef on the poorest and in future it will be Y-Vik beef.

Today Y-Vik beef is less than 25% but it is increasing rapidly.

 

What's the process of even producing the same X-Vik dose? What are the steps involved, the collaboration between the different entities so to speak?

 

Yeah it's very important that there is close collaboration between departments in semen production.

So first the barn staff that are handling the bulls. It's very important that we handle the bulls in the right way. That they are mature and developed so they're ready for semen production.

But we see that there are a few bulls that will not be able to produce sexed semen. And of course it is frustrating if it's a bull with a very high NTM value and he will never produce.

The barn staff is excellent in handing the bulls and making the bulls ready for production and trying different methods of optimizing the semen production. 

But unfortunately, we have to drop a few percent of the bulls every year because they're not able to.

But in reality, they are supposed to produce sexed semen all of them for Jerseys.

Otherwise they're not of interest to us.

Well, if they can produce a couple of doses and we can make a couple of flushes then we will get the next generation and then we'll have to do with the sons.

But the collaboration between us running the breeding program and the barn staff with laboratory staff is also of very high importance so that we optimize on the semen production all through the whole process. And in the end then we need the semen is handled very well by AI technicians and the farmers. 

And they know what's ready - what they're going for.

 

Just a comment to this because I do actually think some of the improvement we have seen in the product over time, it's highly related to exactly what Peter is telling here.

That this cooperation between our laboratory and our barn staff that they analyze and they are careful in selecting and treating animals correctly.

Also of course, machinery. I think there has been an improvement in that but definitely also the skills from the people handling these machines.

I think we shouldn't underestimate that because it's hand work. They really need to work with this for a long time in order to be very good at it and that's what they are. They are very skilled in this and it's visible 100% in the end product that they do a good job there.

So that's important to add to it, I think.

 

And also the follow up from research and development. To start with, we had this very big trial with 200,000 inseminations, doing a check up on the first product that we made and edited our procedures early on.

But also today, we have constant follow-ups on non-return rates and all what can be traced.

And now as mentioned in a previous podcast, we have introduced the batch coding that will also enable us to optimize more on both procedures and quality. 

 

So, when I actually received that the first sexed semen dose, it's only the best semen that gets through. 

Everything that's sent out has gone through a series of quality checks.

So, Claus, to summarize, you know, receiving the first dose of sexed semen, out on the farm what ultimately needs to be in place for me now to make the most of this dose?

 

For the female sexed dose, you need to have identified which animals that you want to breed for the next generation and use the sexed dose there.

Meaning that you make an optimal genetic progress in your herd.

If you have even genomically tested, like Peter mentioned, then you have the refined tool to do this the most optimal way, but traditional breeding values are also valuable in this of course.

So, you can make optimized genetic progress and you will gain from that from generation to generation. And then you can optimize the outcome from the beef production from the rest of the herd in that.

And I think here it's important to find that balance because it can be too extreme in both cases.

You can use not enough female semen so you don't get that genetic progress.

You might get a surplus of heifers that you cannot use.

But you can also go in the other direction where you actually use too much beef and maybe then you lack heifers to replace your own herd.

And that would be very costly if you have to go and purchase more dairy heifers for your herd.

 

So, this that you on farm level find this right balance between beef and sexed doses, I think that's the optimal way to go forward.

 

So, it sounds like as with everything else that in successful cattle breeding, I really need a strategy - a plan to think things through with different scenarios of how to make the most of sexed semen.

Peter, how do you see sexed semen progress in the future?

 

It'll be huge and standard will be for Jersey that nearly 100% of the Jersey semen used will be sexed in the future.

And it'll be in the near future in Nordic countries but in most other Jersey populations it'll come over the next 5-10 years.

The main reason for Jerseys adapting this and going for nearly 100% is the profitability.

There's more profitability in your herd when you get rid of clear those worthless Jersey bull calves.

But another thing is the sustainability. And sustainability is not only stop culling unwanted bull calves, it's also that when you go for only 30% of your best animals breeding next generation then you can go straight after health, fertility and longevity.

So optimizing those traits, you ensure the next generation really improves on those traits and that's also boosting the sustainability of your herd.

So it's also very important to have that in mind.

We try to offer you a variation of options and this is one of them that using sexed semen strategies offers you new options and that leads to higher satisfaction and better life as a farmer.

So, we truly expect this to grow and we wish you all the best of luck with it because we are sure that you will notice a huge change.

 

Actually, in our next episode of the BreedCast, we will focus on trends in Jersey breeding with you as our guest, Peter, and we will look at the use of sexed semen not only that but all the tools available to really boost health and profit of a Jersey herd.

Claus, what I'm hearing when this talk about sexed semen and I'm hearing this connection to sustainability, the cow of the future that the more environmentally climate friendly cow.

How do you see this link?

 

I see the perfect link in this because this is a really fine and strong example of when there is a nice link between profitability for the herd and for the farmer and a more sustainable production.

I think that's a nice. It goes hand in hand in this case and that's also why I think this will be such a huge success and be the preferred product in the future.

Because you can as Peter says, you can - seen from a farmer perspective - you can optimize your herd and at the same time you can do a more sustainable production and that's what our farmers also like to do because they had seen the responsibility in their farming for the society in general.

 

Thank you so much for joining our BreedCast today.

We've looked at how to make the most of sexed semen in your dairy herd and we've also looked into the future where it sounds like that sexed semen might actually become the rule and conventional semen more the exception.

If you would like to learn more, you can visit our sexed semen page in the products and solutions area on vikinggenetics.com.

Thank you, Claus Langdahl and Peter Larson for sharing these valuable insights with us.

And thank you to everyone out there for listening.

If you have an idea for a topic in cattle breeding that you'd like us to focus on, you can contact us via the website, shoot us an email or find us on Facebook and send us a message.

My name is Louise Roenn Svane. Please join me for the next BreedCast which will be about how to breed healthy and profitable Jersey cows.