WASHINGTON – Five years after Maryland dairy farmer Jason Myers sold one of his promising bulls for stud, Machoman has become the top-producing bull in the country, siring hundreds of offspring.
Not only has he not seen any of those calves — Machoman has never met any of their mothers, either.
Machoman is a current star in the multimillion-dollar artificial insemination industry that collects bull semen and ships it to dairy farmers worldwide. The industry breeds 70 to 75 percent of dairy cattle, said Gordon Doak, the president of the National Association of Animal Breeders.
“It really provides the farmers with a tool to improve their cattle,” said Chuck Sattler, the director of dairy progeny testing at Select Sires, an artificial insemination company. “It saves all these farms from having to have their own mature, dangerous bulls on every farm.”
The industry also does about $50 million of export business a year and has domestic sales three times that amount, according to a 1998 study by the breeders association.
A smaller, related industry that transfers embryos for artificial breeding produced 243,813 embryos in 2001, according to industry sources, but neither they nor government sources could estimate the value of that business.
Competition in the artificial insemination business is tough. About 1,300 potential studs start the process each year, as distributors buy young bulls from farmers across the country and bring them to Wisconsin and Ohio. Based on the quality of milk cows they produce, the bulls are weeded out over the next five years until an elite field of 500 proven sires remains.
“Behind each one of those bulls is a group of nine that went to McDonald’s,” said Rex Powell, a research geneticist with the Animal Improvement Programs Laboratory of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some bulls stay on as long as eight years after they have proven themselves. Others last only six months.
“The youngsters coming through are kicking out the old guys,” Powell said. “It’s kind of like a football player: He can live till he’s 90, but he’ll only be competitive until 32.”
Competition in the embryo production field is easier, because the cows are selected based on their own traits — milk production, freedom from udder disease, teat length — rather than on their daughters’ traits.
Embryos can sell for anywhere from $200 to $2,000, while the average price for one unit of semen is about $8.
While embryos can only be harvested from a cow every 30 to 40 days, however, semen samples can be collected from an average bull two to three times a week.
But “collecting” semen is a delicate description for the actual process.
The breeding at Select Sires takes place in a large, open room with 15- foot-high ceilings and a dirt-floor arena. It is surrounded by a sturdy metal fence with openings every 5 to 6 feet that are just large enough for a person to get through.
Semen collectors and veterinarians must “catch the bulls in action” as they mount steers — sturdy males that have been castrated specifically for breeding, said Sattler. That means they have to dash in between the steers and the 2,000-plus pound bulls right in the middle of mating.
Sattler said he would never do it, but Select Sires veterinarian Don Monke said the bulls and steers are specially trained, so there are few problems.
“You get used to it. It’s kind of like the first time you drive a car,” Monke said.
Sattler said the bulls do not appear to be nervous either.
“We certainly don’t have any problems with them not being interested in performing,” he said. “They don’t know anything else.”
Handlers collect units of semen in small tubes, “like cocktail straws,” which are frozen in liquid nitrogen and then shipped to dairy farms across the country and as far away as Japan, Sattler said.
Nearly 14.5 million units were sold in the United States last year, and about 8.8 million were exported, Doak said. Most of the top importers — like Mexico and Brazil — are in the Americas.
Collecting cow embryos is less hectic, but more technical. Cows take fertility drugs to increase their egg production during ovulation, then are artificially inseminated. Seven days later, veterinarians “flush” the cows for the embryos, getting an average of six, but as many as 30 embryos per flushing.
Starting up that kind of operation can be expensive, said Myers, but worthwhile.
Still, the multimillion-dollar industries are just niche markets in Maryland, with only 20 to 25 farmers involved in both, according to Myers, who said there are more people in the state that do embryo transfers.
“I’m shooting right from the hip. There are people out there, but it’s not a big thing,” said Marilyn Bassford, an international marketing specialist with the Maryland Department of Agriculture.
Nationally, the artificial insemination industry employs 4,000 workers directly and is responsible for the creation of 6,776 jobs, Doak said. Jobs range from geneticists and marketing specialists to handlers who help with the actual breeding.
“In agriculture, you’re always looking for other ways to make money,” Myers said. “It’s another way you can make a little more money for your operation. That’s why we do it.”