Improved genetics has stoked demand for nation's bull semen
By MATEUSZ PERKOWSKI
Exports of U.S. bull semen have surged as overseas breeders work to improve cattle genetics to meet growing appetites for dairy and beef.
Shipments of bull semen in 2012 were on track to outpace the prior year's level of 17 million doses and $124 million -- an increase of 55 percent in volume and 42 percent in value in five years, according to federal trade data.
"There has been growing demand for this product. In many places around the world, they recognize the value of U.S. genetics," said John Schouten, CEO of World Wide Sires, a semen exporting firm in Visalia, Calif.
The U.S. has long been seen as a global leader in cattle genetics, but the rising demand has recently been boosted by the availability of sexed semen, he said.
Sexed semen allows breeders to reliably produce female calves, Schouten said.
Demand for sexed semen has slowed in the U.S. due to economic uncertainty in the dairy industry, but its popularity continues to expand in Asian and Middle Eastern countries, he said. "They're trying to grow their herds."
The sequencing of the bovine genome by the USDA and other researchers allows for breeders to collect information about young bulls by testing their DNA, Schouten said.
In the past, the quality of bulls was determined by evaluating their offspring for many years, he said. Now, it doesn't take as long to recognize the value of young bulls, a development that has accelerated demand for their genetics.
"We're now able to get data on very young bulls that don't have to go through progeny test data," Schouten said, noting that his company still conducts such offspring evaluations to verify the DNA information.
"You're getting higher genetics at a quicker pace," he said.
Bull semen is used to cross U.S. dairy breeds with those native to foreign countries, thereby upgrading their milk production, Schouten said. The process allows cattle to retain adaptations to local conditions.
"It's gratifying we're able to help improve their cattle," he said.
While much of the trade in bull semen is focused on the dairy industry, U.S. beef genetics are also sought after, Schouten said.
"I see continued growth globally as beef demand increases," said Jared Murnin, general manager of the ORIgen semen marketing company, of Billings, Mont., which specializes in beef genetics.
Brazil is the largest market for U.S. bull semen, so it makes sense that exports to that country would rise as its beef herd grows, Murnin said. "A lot of it is due to cow numbers alone."
ORIgen has seen increased demand for U.S. bull semen from Russia in recent years, which has gone hand-in-hand with exports of U.S. breeding cows to that nation, he said.
"They're rebuilding their cow herd from scratch, essentially," Murnin said, noting that beef production suffered under communist rule. "Their infrastructure was pretty limited but they're making a pretty big push to stand on their own two feet."
Exports of breeding female beef cattle to Russia have gone from zero in 2007 to nearly 15,000 head with a value of $42 million in 2011, according to federal trade data.
In the past year, the volume and value of U.S. breeding cow exports to Russia has roughly tripled -- to 54,000 head and $152 million -- as of November 2012, the most recent month for which data is available.
Exporting bull semen does provide foreign competitors with genetic benefits developed by the U.S. cattle industry, but Murnin said better beef quality would help boost demand, helping everybody.
"It does open up our genetics to the world," he said. "It's a positive and a negative."
In light of projected hikes in global demand for dairy and beef, it's unlikely that bull semen exports will deprive U.S. producers of competitive advantages anytime soon, Schouten said.
"It's a long ways off before we have to worry about cutting off our nose to spite our face," he said.