Farmer discovers bull market


Steve Swenka is a fourth-generation farmer who sells a unique product — bull semen.

Rather than selling cattle that would inevitably end up in the food supply people find at their local grocery stores, Swenka sells breeding stock. That is, he sells bulls to impregnate cows, and he also sells cows to be impregnated.

“We actually sell a bull that will go out and breed with our customer’s cows,” Swenka said.

The offspring of the breed becomes a steer, which is then sold by other farmers for meat.

Eastern Iowa farmer Garry Zumbauch has been buying breeding bulls from Swenka for the past three years. Zumbauch said his trust in Swenka is a reason he has been such a frequent customer.

“[The Swenka family] has been doing business for a long time,” Zumbauch said. “They’re good, reputable breeders.”

Zumbauch said the steers that are born as a result of Swenka’s breeding bulls usually grow up well and have a good temperament.

“Growth is a big thing, but if you can get good temperament, that’s an added bonus,” Zumbauch said.

In addition to selling breeding bulls, Swenka also takes his bulls to bull studs, where their semen is extracted and sold not only around the United States, but also abroad, including Canada and New Zealand.

Swenka said the business of extracting and shipping bull semen is a specialized trade that requires specific equipment and scientific expertise.

“Collecting and freezing semen — it may sound like a simple thing — but it’s a complex process,” he said.

In order to ensure this process is properly done, Swenka takes his bulls to Hawkeye Breeders in Adel, Iowa.

The owner, David Jensen, said his family has been in the semen-collection business since 1969, when his grandparents started the business.

The process of collection from a bull usually takes a little over six hours.

Once a bull owner brings a bull into Hawkeye Breeders, the bull comes in and mounts a teaser animal.

The bull believes it is breeding naturally, and, as a result, ejaculates into an artificial vagina.

The artificial vagina then collects the semen into a tube, and the semen is taken into initial evaluation, in which it has to pass three parameters.

“If the bull passes those three initial parameters, we’ll take that and mix it with an extender,” Jensen said.

The extender added to the semen is a protein base, which contains egg yolk and glycerol.

“[The extender] keeps the cells viable and alive as they go through the cooling process,” Jensen said.

The cooling allows the semen — which comes out of the bull at roughly 92 degrees — to cool down to the necessary 37 degrees before it is frozen to minus-300 degrees to ensure the cells remain static to prevent any damage.

Typically, once the process is over, approximately 30 million sperm cells per dose are expected.

“From that point, that’s when we pull two to three random straws and check post-freeze to make sure the samples survive the freezing process,” Jensen said.

Straws are what the semen is sold in, and they are priced anywhere from $25 to $30. Each straw can inseminate one cow, and they are usually sold in packs of 10.

“It’s a lot more work and a lot more record-keeping,” Swenka said. “It’s just a lot more management than if we were a commercial cow herd. The reward is to be able to see the offspring from your farm.”

Once the sperm from Swenka’s bulls successfully impregnate a cow from another farm and the calf turns out to be healthy to the new owner’s approval, a certificate can be bought from Swenka for $30 to verify that his bull is in fact the father of the calf.

“We’re really in the business of genetics as opposed to just simply selling meat,” Swenka said. “It’s what our family has done for more than 100 years. We’re very selective on the breeding stock we use. We like to think we have a high-quality product we offer for sale.”

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