When it comes to breeding cows, Oakfield Corners Dairy in upstate New York would rather not let nature take its course.
To ensure his prime milk-makers produce daughters, Oakfield partner Jonathan Lamb is willing to pay as much as $200 a vial for bull semen that has been processed so that it contains only X chromosomes.
One reason for the high price, according to competitors, is that a single company, Sexing Technologies, controls more than 90 percent of the sexed-semen market, which has annual sales of $50 million in the U.S. and $220 million abroad. They've mounted a flurry of actions that could bring down the cost for farmers: filing an antitrust lawsuit, challenging the company's patents and, in a battle that began Jan. 25 in a Denver court, fighting over contractual rights to the technology.
"As dairy farmers, what we're trying to do constantly is become more efficient to feed the world population," said Lamb, who uses sex selection in only 5 percent of the 2,000 breedings per year he oversees. "It is expensive now, and we would definitely use it" more if the price came down.
The dairy industry embraced artificial insemination after World War II. Gender-sorted semen has been used for only about the last decade, according to the National Association of Animal Breeders.
Farmers use gender selection not only to propagate the milkers but to expand herds and avoid having to buy replacement cows. It's also safer for heifers having their first calf, since female calves are smaller than males.
In an industry built wholly on female animals, sex- selection would be more widely used if the technology got better and the price came down, said Matt Gould, Philadelphia-based analyst for the Dairy & Food Market Analyst newsletter. For example, conception rates are lower for semen that has undergone the process, he said.
"Heifers are more valuable than bull calves throughout the industry," said Erick Metzger, manager for herd services at American Jersey Cattle Association, which has about 2,400 active members. "If you can create more females, that can be a source of revenue for producers."
Sexing Technologies -- its legal name is Inguran LLC -- sets up labs at stud farms and processes semen as soon as it's collected. It also owns bulls. Farmers select a sire from the company's online catalogue with such listings as that for "Magnum," a Jersey bull known for fathering cows with high milk production.
Sexing Technologies says on its website the sex-sorting technique is 93 percent accurate.
Its technology uses a machine that applies a fluorescent dye to cells that reacts differently on female X chromosomes than male Y chromosomes. As the dyed cells flow past a laser beam, the amount of fluorescence is detected and an electrical charge is applied, which deflects the cells into different containers. The sorted semen is then sold in vials known as straws.
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For Paul Paddock, co-owner of Paddock's Breeding and Dairy Services in Warsaw, New York, which serves around 300 dairies in the region, sexed-semen straws account for about 10 percent of sales volumes and 20 percent of revenues. A straw from the likes of "Modesty," a top-performing bull, costs $200 a pop, Paddock said. Prices for ...
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