Breeding a better cow ain’t no bull

When you think of the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair your first thought probably isn’t bull semen.

And yet the sale of bull semen is a big part of the farming business.

“Every breeder is a little different in what they want to do [but] the common goal at the end is to be profitable and produce long-lasting cows,” Mike West says.

West grew up on a dairy farm in Bradford, Ont., and went to university for agriculture. Today he works for Semex, a Canadian company in the business of “bovine genetics”.

“Growing up, farming was just something that you did and you enjoyed doing it,” he says. “It’s not easy to make a huge living in farming, but they do it because they love it.”

It may be a labour of love, but there are ways to make that labour a little easier and more profitable, he says. Enter artificial insemination.

The Royal Winter Fair is Semex’s largest marketing opportunity of the year, West says. Clients from all over the world come to see what the company can produce.

So, Semex has brought cows to the Royal. These cows are the offspring of the bulls whose semen is up for sale.

“There are a lot of reasons for artificial insemination: biosecurity, genetic improvement,” West says. “Using artificial insemination lets you use the best bulls that are available — the ones that have been proven to be genetically advanced are more efficient, more economical.

“It’s also a way to be safer so that you don’t have live bulls on the farm.”

West travels all over western Canada and the western United States looking for promising bulls that meet Semex’s criteria. He is responsible for purchasing the bulls that the company’s semen comes from.

“When you use artificial insemination, we have a list of our bulls that are all available,” he says. “They have all been evaluated on over 20 different traits: milk production, the size of them, the structure of their leg and the shape of their udders.”

Vials of semen are frozen and stored in liquid nitrogen, and can cost $40 to $50.

“It all lets you correctively mate, so you can try and improve that cow to what is going to make a longer-lasting, higher-production cow that fits your mold of what you want as a producer,” West says.

Genetics are important, yes, but there’s more to it than that, he says. All cows, including the ones Semex has brought to the Royal, should be comfortable and content.

“A cow that is happy, in good condition and healthy will produce more milk,” West says. “The same thing for us with our bulls. If we can keep our bulls happy and comfortable, hopefully they will produce more semen.”