For me, it started with Mr. Immambo.
Fifteen years ago, I was near the end of a road trip. It was a wonderful and strange adventure, filled with vast blue skies and bygone roadside attractions, but also a new boyfriend had lied to me about being a smoker and tried to maintain that lie by going cold turkey at the beginning of the trip. (To be fair, I wasn’t always a treat on the road either.) The last night, we stayed at a roadside motel in West Virginia. The bed was wood-firm, the shower was clogged and the air vent piped in every sound from the room next door. But there was one thing that made it all worth it: A postcard on the desk of a brown-spotted, massive-horned steer with a name underneath: Mr. Immambo.
Unfortunately, the original postcard has been lost to time, but I did make this photocopy of it during my “photocopy everything cool” phase:
Anyway, I’m burying the lede: The back of the postcard mentioned that Mr. Immambo’s semen was for sale.
While Mr. Immambo’s image remained near and dear to my heart, I mostly forgot about the back of the postcard and my fantastic opportunity to buy bovine semen. But recently, I was searching for something else entirely when I found this ad in an old issue of pork-raising publication The Swine World:
I was first drawn in because every name in that ad is fantastic. But the line about getting a sow sired by “one of the following great boars” reminded me of my missed opportunity to purchase Mr. Immambo’s sperm — and it made me realize that livestock semen was a commodity long before commercial sperm-freezing techniques became available.
When I tried to find information about how these early 1900s siring services worked, however, most of what I found was similarly vague ads, like this one:
That’s why I turned to Jeannette Vaught, “a cultural historian with a PhD in American Studies, a former equine veterinary technician and a lifelong horsewoman,” as she puts it, who’s currently teaching at California State University, Los Angeles. Vaught was my ideal expert, since she knows about animal reproduction from both the historical side and the practical side, having participated in several horse inseminations herself. (For more about the exact role she’s played and what it’s like to steady yourself against a thrusting horse, you can read her piece on “Animal Sex Work.”)
“In an agricultural society, you have limited geographies, so lot of the breeding was primarily local,” Vaught explains during a phone interview. “In fact, the vast majority of breeding in the 19th century and the early 20th century for hogs and for cattle was done neighbor to neighbor. So you have these very local populations and a lot of different standards for what being a hog should look like or what being a cow should look like, and a lot of this was done through the breeder’s eye.”
But, she explains, “In the 19th century in the United States, you also had the rise of the livestock show. The function of the show was to choose the best among whichever animal was being presented as a breeding animal. And so that kind of works to standardize the look of an animal that meets certain criteria for whatever ‘good’ means in any particular historical context.”
More importantly, male show champions could now parlay their newfound celebrity into siring opportunities, which expanded the geographic reach of siring animals and turned them into commodities that could be advertised in trade publications, just like Bob Quality.
At the time, the use of these sires-for-hire was generally more collaborative than competitive. “People would send money to have the bull travel to a particular town, and three or four farmers would all use the services of that bull,” Vaught says. “Your whole town would benefit with a better product.”
But artificial insemination drastically changed the siring process. The practice was actually invented much earlier than you might expect; the first credited artificial insemination occured in 1784 when Italian priest and biologist Lazzaro Spallanzani artificially inseminated a spaniel. (According to an 1878 issue of United States Medical Examiner, “with the semen of the same dog” Spallanzani “attempted to fecundate two cats that were in heat”; you can deduce from our lack of dats and cogs that he was unsuccessful.) Despite the successful spaniel insemination, however, the next leap forward didn’t occur until 1899, when Russian biologist Ilya Ivanovich Ivanov began focusing on practical applications of artificial insemination in animals.
But the process had a problem. “When you would insert the semen into a female’s uterus, it would immediately get infected,” notes Vaught. The issue was pathogens making it into the uterus — little surprise when you consider that one of the first methods of semen collection consisted of “collecting semen from sponges placed in the vagina of mount animals,” according to R.H. Foote’s history of AI. (Today, the standard collection device is a much-more-sanitary artificial vagina.) While AI progress was made in the early 20th century, including extender solutions that allowed the semen to be cooled to refrigeration temperatures and reheated, the biggest leap came in 1950, when Cornell University scientists discovered that adding antibiotics to the sperm protected it from contamination.
The combination of semen chilling and antibiotic treatments allowed the semen-selling business to take off. One of the first major outfits to pop up was Curtiss Candy Company Farms, owned by Otto Schnering, the creator of the Baby Ruth bar. The Curtiss cows were already a big part of the company’s advertising before 1950:
Yet in the early 1950s, the Curtiss bulls were advertised for very different reasons. According to Lisa Damian Kidder in the book Trout Valley, the Hertz Estate and Curtiss Farm:
Schnering launched the first large-scale system of breeding cattle by artificial insemination. He sold this service nationwide, and results were guaranteed. Prices ranged from $7 (from “pool” semen from an unspecified bull) to up to $150 (produced by a specified sire). Special salesmen were employed to deliver products anywhere in the United States within 24 hours by special refrigeration units.
The company produced catalogs that highlighted different bulls and their benefits to your herd; it was sort of a mail-order bride catalog, if all you actually wanted from your mail-order bride was for a friendly salesman to show up with her refrigerated eggs.
While the goal with AI is still to breed ideal animals, different industries use the ability to buy and sell semen in a variety of different ways, depending on the goal of a particular farmer or rancher, the breeding habits of the animals and the needs of the industry. Thus, it’s impossible to make blanket statements about how AI has affected livestock in general. But even a look at the basic numbers gives a glimpse at the stark differences. As of 2007, experts estimated that “75 percent of dairy cattle and 85 percent of swine are conceived through artificial insemination,” according to this Denver Post article.
That, though, contradicts what rancher Darol Dickinson tells me. He estimates that only about three percent of non-dairy cattle in the U.S. are bred through AI.
I didn’t just call Dickinson for statistics, however. I call him because he was at ground zero for me: He owned Mr. Immambo. Dickinson’s cattle are gorgeous — large, spotted animals with majestic horns, all raised on Dickinson’s Ohio ranch. In regards to Mr. Immambo, Dickinson says that “he was best of the Watusi bulls when I got him.” An African cattle breed, the Watusi are still relatively rare in America — Dickinson had one of the first Watusi herds in North America outside of zoos. As such, AI and semen sales have been instrumental in maintaining and expanding the breed. For example, Dickinson tells me about a Watusi upbreeding program in New Zealand. Due to restrictions on important livestock, though, New Zealand ranchers couldn’t bring in live Watusi cattle; they could, however, buy Watusi semen, and use it to breed with existing cows.
Dickinson also described Mr. Immambo as an “old bull” and notes that he’s no longer at the ranch, but he still lives on in the form of several daughters. And thanks to freezing processes, Mr. Immambo can live on wherever you want him to as well. On Semen Hub, a website I don’t recommend visiting in a public place due to the sheer size of the words “SEMEN HUB” and the giant sperm on their landing page, still offers Mr. Immambo’s seed for $20.
That’s actually a steal. One of Dickinson’s current cattle, Clear Point, gets $200 per batch. Dickinson says he did the math once, and per ounce, that’s about 20 times the price of gold.
I thought about finally buying some of Mr. Immambo’s semen after all these years. But ultimately, I passed. If I’m going to invest in a straw of bull semen, I want it to be one that’s at least 10 times the price of gold.