By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Dairy semen sales have really taken off in the past several years, with domestic sales nearly doubling to more than 23 million units in 2012 from about 13.4 million in 2000.
The reason is a new era in genomics, said Gordon Doak, president of the National Association of Animal Breeders.
Dairy semen export sales have also jumped, from about 8.2 million units in 2000 to 16.6 million in 2012. That's up from 2.2 million in 1979 when the association started tracking its members' sales, which account for about 95 percent of the dairy cattle semen sales in the U.S.
Due to DNA testing for genetic predictions on young calves, the industry is now able to use very young bulls, with a 70 percent or higher reliability rating, instead of waiting for progeny testing. Bulls can start producing semen at one year of age, Doak said.
One of the biggest advantages of artificial insemination is that dairymen have access to a much wider choice of genetics and the best genetics. And they probably would not have the financial means to afford a bull with the desired quality traits, he said.
Another advantage is freedom from venereal disease as the donating bulls go through a vigorous health regime. Yet another is that one natural service bull can only service about 25 cows a year, whereas a donor bull can produce enough semen to AI 25,000 cows a year, with pregnancy requiring about 2 to 2 1/2 units, he said.
NAAB estimates about 70 percent of U.S. cows are bred through AI. And export sales are growing by double digits and now represent 40 to 60 percent of NAAB members' business, he said.
"We have the best genetics in the world, particularly Holstein," he said.
As the average herd size grows in the U.S. dairy industry, artificial insemination has become more commonplace, said Wilson Gray, extension livestock specialist with the University of Idaho.
It's more efficient, dairymen don't have to keep a lot of bulls around, and they can better control the quality of the progeny and milk production, he said.
"In general, people are looking for ways to enhance production or (milk) components, he said.
There are a number of different sire services that all have their own studs to provide whatever traits the industry is looking for, he said.
Purchasing semen is cost effective at an average of $15 to $20 a unit. A high-quality bull would cost producers a pretty penny, and the traits and breeding performance of other bulls are less certain. AI allows efficient breeding, which helps producers maintain effective turnover in the herd, he said.
Development and adoption of synchronization protocols that allow for timed artificial insemination has spurred the use of AI and sales of dairy semen, said Paul Fricke, professor of dairy science at the University of Wisconsin.
Dairymen can synchronize ovulation in their herd and breed all cows at a fixed time rather than having to see the cow in estrus. The protocols have been widely adopted and increase both insemination rates and conception rates, thereby increasing the pregnancy rate. It maximizes the rate at which cows get pregnant, and that maximizes profit, he said.
Lactation peaks about eight to 12 weeks after the cow gives birth. So dairymen want to get the cow pregnant again in a timely manner, otherwise the overall milk production of the herd declines, he said.
Sexed semen is another successful technology that has advanced use of AI, he said.
"AI is considered one of the greatest agricultural technologies of the last century, along with the development of synchronization protocol for timed AI," he said.