On November 3, 2018, BAIF Development Research Foundation (BDRF) inaugurated a new laboratory at its campus in Uruli Kanchan, some 30 km from Pune, to produce “sexed semen” of bulls having a 90%-plus likelihood of resulting in the birth of only female calves. Since then, this facility — operated by Sexing Technologies (ST), the US company that does “sorting” or separation of the X-chromosome sperms from Y-chromosome sperms — has churned out around 2 lakh sexed semen doses till August, including 174,587 in the fiscal ended March 31, 2019.
However, the offtake of these has been far from impressive. The non-profit public trust — India’s second largest supplier of bovine semen mostly frozen in 0.25-ml vials or “straws” — could sell only 36,173 doses in 2018-19. Even at the end of August, that figure had cumulatively reached just 45,000 or so straws. This was a fraction of the 127.1 lakh doses of “regular” frozen semen produced from BDRF’s two bull stations at Uruli Kanchan and Jind (Haryana), and 117.2 lakh doses supplied, during the last fiscal.
“Price is an issue. When normal semen costs Rs 100-150 per dose (farmers get it at Rs 50-100 after subsidies by dairies), it’s not easy to charge Rs 1,200 even for straw that would most probably produce a female offspring,” admits Sachin Joshi, senior programme coordinator at BDRF.
The new laboratory processes semen from BDRF’s own bulls that number about 400 at Uruli Kanchan and 80 in Jind. The raw ejaculate is, however, sorted by ST’s biotechnologists using the Texas-based animal genetics company’s proprietary technology. Only after sexing — which takes place inside a glass wall out of bounds for non-ST personnel — are the semen straws taken back by BDRF.
According to BDRF’s Annual Report, out of the 7,723 calvings resulting from its sorted semen artificial inseminations (AI) during 2018-19, 6,879 female and 844 male calves were born. That translates into an 89% success rate, as against the 50-50 chance of a calf produced being female with AI using ordinary semen.
A bull’s sperm has 30 chromosomes, including one which is either an X- or a Y-chromosome whose genes code for sex. The egg of a cow, too, contains 30 chromosomes, one of which is always an X-chromosome (just as the human sperm and egg have 23 chromosomes each, one of them either an X- or a Y-chromosome in the case of the former, and one only an X-chromosome for the latter).When a sperm and egg unite, and the former carries the X-chromosome, the resultant offspring is female (XX). When a Y-chromosome-bearing sperm fertilises an egg, the result is a male calf (XY).
Sexed semen technology involves preselecting the sex of offspring by separating the X-sperms from Y-sperms. The aim is to deliver freedom from male calves, by ensuring that cows are inseminated by semen containing only X-chromosome-bearing sperms. ST was the first, in 2004, to commercialise sexed semen production using a procedure to stain the sperm cells with a fluorescent dye that bound to their DNA. The dyed cells were made to pass through a laser beam from a machine (flow cytometer) that could sort the sperms based on the amount of fluorescent light they gave off. Since the X-chromosome-bearing sperms have slightly higher DNA content than the Y-chromosome-bearing ones, the former absorbed more dye and emitted more light. That, then, allowed for separation of the X- and Y- sperm fractions in the semen. Subsequently, another US company ABS Global launched its own Genus IntelliGen sexed semen technology that, it claimed, did not subject sperms cells to “high pressures, electric currents and high shear forces”.
In March this year, ST opened its second semen sexing lab in India at Rishikesh is association with the Uttarakhand Livestock Development Board. ABS, meanwhile, has already put up three facilities. The first one, a joint venture with BG Chitale Dairy at Brahmanand Nagar in Maharashtra’s Sangli district, has a production capacity of four lakh sorted straws. The second, in partnership with the Mehsana District Cooperative Milk Producers’ Union in Gujarat, can produce 2 lakh straws. The third, with the Uttar Pradesh Livestock Development Board at Babugarh in Hapur district, has a capacity of 5 lakh straws.
ABS, last week, signed a memorandum of understanding with the Maharashtra Livestock Development Board for a fourth lab at Aurangabad, expected to start producing sorted semen straws in 2020-21. “We floated tenders and ABS quoted the lowest price of supplying at Rs 750 per dose,” says Anoop Kumar, principal secretary, department of animal husbandry, dairy development and fisheries, Maharashtra. This is below the Rs 780 and Rs 1,200 rates that the UP and Uttarakhand governments are reported to have agreed to for procuring from ABS and ST, respectively.
In 2017-18, 757.91 lakh AIs were performed across India, including by state animal husbandry departments (346.69 lakh), dairy cooperatives (184.66 lakh) and other agencies (226.56 lakh). The main suppliers of frozen semen are the National Dairy Development Board-owned Sabarmati Ashram Gaushala (179.8 lakh doses in 2018-19) and BDRF (117.2 lakh doses). ABS-BG Chitale’s Brahmanand Nagar stud farm houses over 100 bulls with annual semen production capacity of 70 lakh straws.
The Narendra Modi government has targeted increasingly AI coverage to over 50% of the country’s breedable bovine population by 2021-22, against the existing 30% levels. Further, it is seeking to promote sexed semen, as a part solution to the problems faced by farmers from the implementation of anti-cattle slaughter laws, especially in BJP-ruled states. There is talk of the Centre providing a subsidy of up to Rs 200 per dose and states extending similar incentives for AI using sorted straws, which will at least minimise the chances of unproductive male calves being born.
But price remains a major barrier. The fact that conception rates (ratio of pregnancies to inseminations) from sexed semen, at 40-45%, are lower than the 45-50% through conventional semen, further adds to costs. “Farmers may be willing to pay on a per-pregnancy basis, as opposed to per-dose now. If they (ST and ABS) supply at below Rs 500 per straw, we can absorb some of the cost and charge farmers a reasonable rate for every conception that takes place,” states the chairman of a leading south-based private sector dairy.
Arvind Gautam, managing director of ABS India, believes that farmers will pay for sexed semen only if the genetics of underlying bull is good. “It’s worth sorting the semen of only those sires whose daughters give more milk than their mothers. The bulls have to genomic-tested. Only the ones with positive traits — their progeny yielding higher milk with better fat/solids-not-fat content, being more fertile with longer productive life, and having good udders, sturdiness and stature — should be inducted in semen production. Sexing only adds to genetic merit. A farmer may opt for sexed semen in the first few lactations (when his cow is fertile and more likely to produce good calves), but not in the subsequent ones,” he points out.