As crimes go, it took balls. Just before Christmas, thieves stole 60 containers of bull sperm from a farm in Olfen, a small town near Cologne, Germany. You might wonder what you do with litres of bovine ejaculate. Well, bull semen from premium pedigree bulls can be worth its weight in gold. Literally. Hence its agricultural nickname, “white gold”. Even Jeremy Clarkson, who is worth £70 million and treats farming like a side hobby, complained that bull semen is “phenomenally expensive”. A single “straw” (a 0.25cm3 plastic vial) from a top line bull, sold by a reputable dealer, can cost thousands of pounds. Ten vials from one bull went for US$67,000 at a sale in Australia in 2019.
The bull sperm market is bullish thanks to the widespread practice of artificial insemination. More than 75% of all dairy cattle breeding in the UK is done via this consistent method, which allows cows to be impregnated with the juice of a tried and trusted sire. If you can afford one, these sires are an excellent investment. In February 2019, an Angus bull named SAV America 8018 sold for the record-breaking price of $1.51 million due to “superior genetics”. The buyer was Trump advisor Charles W. Herbster, who took the bull to his Virginia stud, North American Breeders Inc., and turned him into a cash cow. SAV America 8018’s straws went for $80 a pop.
Just do the arithmetic. A stud bull will have its semen extracted twice a day, three or four times a week, and deposit, on average, 5-8ml of semen. One British Charolais bull is on record for producing £800,000 worth of semen a month, but the world record for semen production goes to an American Holstein bull Toystory, who in his 13 years at stud produced 2.4 million units (or 2,700lbs) of semen, and sired an estimated 500,000 offspring.
Who was the lucky benefactor? Toystory was owned by the dystopian-sounding Genex Cooperative Inc, itself a component of URUS, the biggest artificial inseminator in the world. (“We inseminate one cow a second around the globe.”) The URUS group have sold over 3.1 million “straws” between them. Britain’s biggest bovine semen producer is Cogent, which began life on the Duke of Westminster’s Eaton Estate in Cheshire, but is now part of Texas-based STGenetics. With more than 100 bulls at stud, Cogent, like URUS, sells worldwide. Bull semen production is increasingly a multinational enterprise, a cross-borders commerce.
And the price of bull sperm is shooting up, not least because it is increasingly modified in the stud lab. (Cogent’s speciality is sexed semen, which enables dairy farmers to generate 90% female calves.) The likely consequence of the increased cost is that semen heists will also likely rise. Already the theft of bull sperm is a global phenomenon, not an incident isolated to Olfen. Perhaps the greatest heist, in monetary terms, occurred in Minnesota, USA, in 2015, when robbers rustled four pints of bull semen worth US $70,000. Such semen thefts are rarely opportunistic, because the ejaculate needs to be conserved carefully, supercooled with liquid nitrogen at -196°C so it doesn’t spoil.
If you think the money involved in bull semen is eye-watering, wait until you hear how the semen is collected in the first place. In the good old days, the bull mounted the cow, and the semen was extracted with a spoon or syringe. (Been there, done that: I am a traditional farmer.) These days, the methods are increasingly unnatural and cruel. The cow is replaced by a “teaser cow” — usually a castrated male, or a wooden dummy. To stimulate the bull, stud farms often employ techniques, such as a ransrectal massage (TRM), which can be very painful for the creature — but not as painful as electroejaculation (EEJ). This technique, in use since 1936, involves inserting a 75-90mm-wide electrified probe directly into the bull’s anus, and sending pulses of between 8 and 16 volts into it. The bull, meanwhile, is restrained in a metal cage known as a “crush”.
No one who has witnessed the process of EEJ could deny that it causes the bulls pain. They bellow (“vocalisation” in the euphemism of theriogenology, the veterinary science of reproduction) and the back legs may give way. Under the skin, there are increases in plasma cortisol, progesterone and heart rate — all signifiers of distress. As one recent scientific volume aimed at the industry, Reproductive Technologies in Animals, put it: “Obviously, EEJ is regarded as a stressful and painful procedure, which may negatively affect animal welfare.”
Obviously. Yet it is standardly practised throughout the world. Only Denmark and the Netherlands seem to ban electroejaculation. To reduce the pain of EEJ, bulls are sometimes given an intrarectal anaesthetic. Sometimes. Most countries allow anybody to operate the EEJ probe, although it widely acknowledged that good technique can minimise pain. In Britain, the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons (RCVS) and the Association of Veterinary Anaesthetists guidelines indicate that the EEJ procedure must be performed by a veterinary surgeon; however, the use of an analgesic is not a specified requirement.
All this is part of a bleak wider trend. The more agriculture industrialises, the more it seemingly becomes inured to casual cruelty towards farm animals. Our dwindling ethical standards are partly down to agriculture’s removal from the grass roots, and partly down to money. Both extreme poverty and extreme wealth in farming tend to produce harshness towards “dumb beasts”.
The argument for modern methods of collecting bull semen is that the “elite” cows produced will give humanity more beef, more milk. But ends do not justify means, and, anyway, the cruelties of commercial bull semen production are petrol for the flames of veganism. It gives farming in general a bad name. Some of us in agriculture think that the only place for a bull is in the field, servicing the herd naturally. Living a life, in the words of moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum in her recent book, Justice for Animals, that is “characteristic of its kind”. The real crime in the bull semen business? It’s animal welfare.