The global food economy has been thoroughly reinvented by genetic optimization and algorithmic precision. When you dollup a slug of canola oil into a pan, its amino acids have almost certainly been knitted together by a team of scientists eager to harden its defenses to herbicides.
All of that sounds very futuristic, but Les Vogler, owner of Vogler Semen in eastern Nebraska, reminds me that even as grocery stores become increasingly high-tech, someone is always doing the dirty work in the pastures outside of the labs. In his case, he’s been collecting bull semen for more than 25 years with nothing more than an artificial heifer vagina, a drum filled with liquid nitrogen and a well-hewn understanding of cattle behaviorism.
Farmers rely on semen samples to ensure the continued viability of their livestock. Have a prized angus? It sure would be nice to keep its genes around for generations, or better yet, sell their chromosomes on the open market. It’s a tradition like no other. We’ve been freezing bovine semen since the 1930s, and the job hasn’t gotten any cleaner as the decades pile on. Thankfully, Vogler was more than happy to take me behind the scenes of this strange world, educating me on the charmed lives of bulls raised for their seed, the insane prices premium sperm cells can fetch and the self-effacing humor one must nurture if they pleasure cows for a living.
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We started up the farm in 1983. It’s a family business, and back in those days we were going through a crisis. The economy sucked, so my dad was trying to come up with ways to keep us afloat. A bull barn that collected semen came up for sale, and though we didn’t know anything about that line of work, we made an offer to buy it. The owner actually decided not to sell it, but we have that farmer blood in us, we were stubborn, so we started up our own operation.
I shipped out to a few colleges — Kansas State, the University of Minnesota and Colorado State, which collected semen for research purposes. They were nice enough to let me shadow them, and I learned the tricks of the trade. Then our family purchased all of the equipment we needed, and the rest was history. Farmers bring us their bulls where they’re housed in individual pens with access to fresh air and exercise runs. They can use the semen we collect for artificial insemination purposes to keep the genes alive, or they can sell it on the market.
There are a lot of different ways to collect semen from a bull. But we like to keep things natural. On our farm, we lead our bulls to a leashed heifer that they mount for breeding. When that happens, we’ll have someone standing by with what’s called an AV, or an artificial vagina. They slip the AV on the bull’s penis as he goes in for the thrust, he ejaculates, and we immediately freeze the semen in liquid nitrogen and send it off to quality control. It’s an efficient process. In a half-CC straw, we’ll usually harvest between 30 to 40 million sperm cells.
We’ve come up with some better ways to preserve the semen over the years, but honestly, the methods haven’t changed much. After all, sperm cells have been around since the dawn of time. But you always need to be aware of the different proclivities of your livestock. Some of our bulls give us enough semen per collection to breed 50 cows, others can get up to 500 cows per collection.
You’d be surprised at how many different factors play into the semen harvest. The quality and quantity can hinge on the age of the bull or even the time of the year, so you need to have people on staff who really know the animals. When we’re collecting, we like to line up the bulls, so 10 or 15 of them watch one of them get busy. It gets them all worked up and increases the sperm count.
This business is both an art and a science. Eventually the bulls start to understand the routine. When they come out, they know what they’re supposed to do, and my employees know how to treat them in a way they like. Some of our bulls need to be collected right away, because if they mount multiple times, they’ll ejaculate prematurely. Either way, once they get collected, they turn around and head back in the pen, and they know it’ll probably happen again in 30 minutes or so. It’s not a bad life.
These days, the bulls that are used for semen collection are all optimized for their meat. There’s less cattle around in the world as land area shrinks, so good genetics sell. There’s all sorts of genomic testing for carcass quality, yield rate and protein levels for butchering. Bulls that excel in those metrics can be worth a ton of money, just for their semen. There’s a bull named Deadwood that just sold for $900,000. Deadwood’s semen is put up for auction and typically fetches about $1,000 per unit. That’s good business.
I think we’re going to continue to see our food supply rely on semen collection and in vitro fertilization more and more as time goes on. Food distributors want consistency in their product above everything else. In the next few years, you’ll be able to walk into a supermarket, scan a code on a hamburger and it will show you a little video of the ranch and the genetics of where it came from. That should be appealing to a lot of consumers. People want to know where their food is coming from, and we’re reaching a point where we can have the genuine DNA analytics on hand for anyone curious to see them.
A lot of people still look at me funny when I tell them I collect semen for a living. I used to get embarrassed about it early on in my career. It’s hard to explain: “When I say I collect semen, I’m not saying I keep it in my sock drawer.” But I’ve learned to embrace my work the longer I’ve lived with it. I’m not embarrassed anymore. In fact, one of our employees made us a shirt that we all wear around. It says, “Volger Semen Center, We’re Pretty Handy.”