Brave New Cows:
technology to choose sex could change agriculture industry
By Judy Monchuk
CALGARY (CP) - 'Sex in the barnyard may never be the same.
A new process that appears to allow farmers to choose the sex of their cows and pigs in artificial insemination has the potential to revolutionize commercial agriculture.
But these aren't mad scientists using genetic technology to manipulate a species, stresses Dr. Peter Blecher, whose father Stan developed the process at the University of Guelph.
"We're just removing the sperm of the sex we don't want," said Blecher, founder of Sequent Biotechnologies, whose sperm-sexing technology inspired a recent friendly takeover by Microbix Biosystems Inc. (TSX:BMX).
"There's no manipulation of genetic material at all. The sperm that's used in the ultimate fertilization is untouched in any way."
The patented technology uses an antibody that can clump together all the sex-specific proteins in a semen sample and remove whatever sex is not wanted. That can mean major opportunities for producers who have only a 50 per cent chance of getting the sex of animal they want through artificial insemination.
The desire to pre-determine sex has been an issue for centuries.
"Since King Henry VIII started chopping the heads off his wives it's been something that's been a riddle to scientists," said Blecher. The British monarch executed two of his six wives, blaming them for not being able to produce male heirs.
But while baby determination is an ethical minefield among humans, it represents billions in increased efficiency to livestock producers around the world. For example, dairy farmers obviously prefer offspring to be milk-producing females.
Beef producers prefer male calves, which convert feed into lean muscle mass far faster than females. That can have huge implications to cattle ranchers who operated on razor-thin margins even before the mad cow crisis ravaged the industry. Female pigs are easier to control.
"Look at any major global business that's operating on a 50 per cent inefficiency," said Blecher. "That would be considered disastrous by any standards."
Dairy operator Michael Hall says the technology, if proven, would be a natural evolution of the artificial insemination industry.'