At Casa Cattle Company in Corinna, there are plenty of cows and calves making up a successful belted Galloway breeding program but not many bulls to be seen.
Instead, there are two cryogenic tanks in the grain room, each containing 150 vials of bull semen and 30 fertilized embryos containing genetic material from around the country.
Rather than deal with the expense and work required to maintain enough bulls to ensure the genetic diversity Ashton Caron is looking for in his herd, he has opted to instead purchase or save semen from his own prized stock to do the job.
For Caron, saving the semen means big savings and a high-tech way to weather the current economic crisis. Swapping out a bull for artificial insemination technology allows Caron to keep producing high-quality calves that can be sold at a profit while minimizing costs.
“It has become very essential,” Caron said. “With rising grain and hay costs due to COVID, we need to be able to maximize profits and minimize expenses.”
It may not be the romantic Hollywood image of the cows and bulls doing what comes naturally out on the range. But for Caron it just makes good economic sense to dip into a vial, often referred to as a straw, of semen rather than deal with an old fashioned cattle roundup when it comes time to breed a cow.
“Most people who do this — us included — can drastically increase the value of their cattle in a short time,” Caron said. “I can take a bull from the other side of the world and breed it to my cow and have those genetics without having to bring them together, which would not really be feasible.”
A healthy breeding bull can cost thousands — even tens of thousands — of dollars. Then there are the expenses of feeding, housing and keeping the animal healthy. Over the course of a year Caron said that it can run upward of $2,000 for just one animal.
A vial of semen, on the other hand, from a bull of the same quality costs Caron between $25 and $30.
Caron and his family raise Belted Galloway cattle, a traditional Scottish breed that has adapted to living on poor upland pastures and the windswept moors of southwest Scotland. They are distinctive with their jet black front and hind ends and white middle. The coloration has earned them the nickname “Oreo cows.”
Selective breeding using artificial insemination is more common when it comes to dairy livestock, according to Caron. Farmers are able to selectively breed for cows that are able to produce more milk than previous generations.
“It costs maybe $300 a year to keep the tanks full of liquid nitrogen,” said Caron, who began saving semen and embryos eight years ago. “We run around 100 cows here, and it’s easy to breed without a bull, so why would we have one?”
Caron’s cattle have won numerous awards at fairs and livestock shows, something that represents years of breeding on the farm. Thanks to using purchased or saved semen and embryos, the breeding program has shown these champion results at a fraction of what it would have cost to purchase and raise the bulls needed to keep the herd going.
Currently tucked safely away in liquid nitrogen keeping them at a steady minus 300-degrees Fahrenheit in the two tanks — each insured for $25,000 — there’s semen from 50 different bulls, Caron said.
“High-quality semen means high demand and that influences the price,” he said. “We do have some semen worth $600 a straw, but that is from a prize bull that is now deceased, so it is a very limited quantity.”
The semen can be planted directly into a female or it can be combined with the egg of a cow in a laboratory as in vitro fertilization.
Most of the breeding cows on the farm serve as surrogate mothers. But a few of those cows are of such high quality that, once they are impregnated, their embryos are harvested to use for in vitro fertilization.
This Simmental cow is a surrogate pregnant with a calf from Knockout’s embryo and Loverboy’s semen, as marked on her ear tag. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN
Among those special cows there is one that stands above the rest with genetic material with connections to old Maine money.
“I was a freshman in high school in 2017 when the Hudson Pines herd owned by David Rockerfeller on Mount Desert Island was sold,” Caron said. “Me and a friend bought her for $4,000 and she’s the best cow on the farm.”
The best part of all of this, Caron said, is you do not need a high quality cow to produce a high quality calf. All you need is the embryo from two prize parents.
There is currently not a huge market for selling his bull’s semen or any embryos, but Caron said the demand is slowly growing.
“In terms of the semen, we had a bull that was born and raised here and before we got rid of him in 2019 we got 300 straws of semen from him,” Caron said. “Now we are down to less than 50 straws and the cool thing is 90 percent of those customers came were west of Idaho [and] it’s cool to see our [bull’s] progeny on these farms out west.”