Artificial Insemination: What About the Other Animals?

Our latest Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace podcast, “Unnatural Turkeys,” reveals the surprising origins of the 40 million turkeys that Americans are going to eat this Thanksgiving. You can download/subscribe at iTunes, get the RSS feed, or read the transcript here.

So, 100 percent of commercially raised turkeys in the U.S. (save for heritage turkeys) are born from artificial insemination. But what about other animals? We talked to reproductive experts Dale Coleman at Auburn University, Wayne Singleton from Purdue, and Keith Bramwell at University of Arkansas. The graphic below shows what percentage of each animal is born from artificial insemination:

(Many Eyes, Hemera)

A good question arises from these findings: why aren’t chickens the result of artificial insemination, if 100 percent of turkeys are? It would make logical sense that chickens suffer from the same reproductive problem as turkeys, since chicken breast meat is also a consumer favorite. The answer: volume. “There are just too many chickens out there to artificially inseminate them,” says Keith Bramwell. “For the chicken industry, the goal is to produce chicken meat at the least possible cost. Artificial insemination does not do that.”

Indeed, U.S. chicken meat consumption is much higher than turkey meat:

Allen Harper from Virginia Tech told us another surprising fact — with artificial insemination, you don’t just get the best stock, it’s more efficient too: “[B]iologically, natural breeding is very wasteful of sperm. About 3 billion sperm cells is more than adequate to inseminate easily six or seven sows. Natural mating is really biological overkill in terms of sperm cells that are deposited.”

Which leads to perhaps the weirdest artificial reproductive strategy, this one from the fish farmers. Mike Freeze of KEO Fish Farms tells us that for the past 150 years, fish farming has been harvesting eggs from the female, and mixing them with milk (sperm) from the males in a bucket or a bowl. Since there are hundreds of thousands of fish eggs farmers are trying to fertilize with the same amount of sperm – containing the eggs in a bucket or bowl turns out to maximize output.

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  1. beuler says:

    Why don’t amercicans consume lamb? Or goat?

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    • Warren says:

      They do, but not much. Per capita lamb consumption in the U.S. is 0.7 lbs. on a boneless basis (USDA Economic Research Service). Goat consumption, although increasing, is very low.

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    • Nick says:

      Because beef is 10x tastier.

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      • Mayuresh says:

        I doubt you have had curried goat then! :-)
        Doesn’t matter whether you have it in the Indian style or Carribean style, it definitely tastes much better than beef :-)

        Jokes apart, goat meat has stronger flavors than beef. Goat tastes much more gamier. Ofcourse, if you prefer farmed meat over game meat, beef will be better for you

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      • James says:

        “Because beef is 10x tastier.”

        That can hardly be the whole answer, because (IMHO, anyway) beef is nowhere near as tasty as elk, buffalo, venison, or even rabbit, and these are difficult to find in anything but specialty stores.

        Likewise with poultry: pheasant beats chicken or turkey, some people like duck or goose (though they’re too greasy for my taste). There are also any number of heirloom fruits & vegetable that were fairly common a century or so ago, but almost unknown nowadays: quince tarts, anyone?

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    • Fran says:

      I thought that it was to do with social attitudes believing that a “certain class of people” eats lamb and that it is thus not for general consumption. I am not, however, American, so I can’t actually say :-)

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    • Rose says:

      Some do, just not most of us.

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  2. JennyB says:

    Nice infographic but I’m afraid the pictures of your beef and dairy cattle are the wrong way round (your dairy looks a bit “beefed up”)

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  3. dave says:

    “Milt”, the word is “milt”.

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  4. Jessica says:

    Isn’t all that “wasted” sperm a good thing, in that it keeps the population from being too homogenous? If you inseminate 7 hens with 1 male turkey rather than 7 different males, don’t you risk passing along more of the same potentially harmful or negative genes?

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    • Fran says:

      It’s not really an issue. Mostly these males are used as “terminal sires” meaning that their genetics are not passed on to further generations. Almost all of these animals are killed for meat before reaching maturity, or being mated. A terminal sire has great end-product characteristics in its offspring, but is usually compromised in breeding characteristics, eg, maternalism, or fecundity (number of offspring) so you wouldn’t want to breed from the offspring.

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  5. David Leppik says:

    It’s not just fish farming. Wild Alaskan salmon also gets help from humans. When the salmon swim back to the streams where they were born, state employees slice open the females to get the eggs and milk the males for the sperm. (The fish are naturally ready to die when they are sliced open.) These aren’t just buckets of sperm and eggs, we’re talking huge vats. When the fry are old enough, they are tagged and released into the wild. This is all done so it’s possible to tell the Alaskan salmon from the Canadian ones when they get caught, to enforce fishing treaties.

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  6. Joe says:

    Allen Harper would appear to agree with Monty Python: every sperm is sacred.

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  7. Eric says:

    Beef producer here. We have used AI for quite some time. The advantage for us is that we can have access to the best of the best genetics for $20-30 per mating. To buy one very good bull (not best of the best but good) you are looking at about $4,000-5,000 plus the annual feed and other expenses to get 30-50 matings out of them each year. They generally need to be replaced every 3-5 years and cull bull prices are always low. Most bulls on a ranch only “work” for about 2 months per year but need year round care and often separate pens from the rest of the herd. AI bulls are collected year round and can produce hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of semen. The semen is cryogenically stored and often sold for years after the bull is dead. The animals that are generally used for AI are genetic outliers

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    • stedebonnet says:

      It also allows for more controlled breeding, so farmers can time the animal pregnancy properly. This obviously matters for the animals growth, health, etc. It also is a relatively easy process to learn. I went to a Beef Cattle Artificial Insemination School as a 14 year old, and was breeding cows on my own after 2-3 days.

      Embryo transfer, at least with cattle, is also a pretty cool technique. Being able to place a fertilized egg from one beef cow and bull, into a dairy cow (which obviously produces more milk) is another interesting way that farmers utilize scientific technology to produce a higher quality product. It also allows them to take as many as 20 eggs from one genetically superior cow. These eggs can then be placed in a donor (presumably of lower genetic quality), which then gives the farmer 20 calves from his two best animals.

      Most horses farmers typically use artificial insemination, for many of the reasons you mentioned above. With horses (probably even more so than cows), there is always the chance that the male gets kicked by the female or falls off of the animal and gets hurt. Since this could mean a broken leg or sterilization for a multi-million dollar animal, its worth the trouble for farmers to breed artificially.

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  8. kip says:

    So why the big difference between beef and dairy cattle?

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    • Ariana says:

      Beef cattle are more reliant on the use of cow-calf operations for their cattle. Cow-calf operations keep herds of both cows and bulls (utilizing natural mating), and sell the weaned calves to feedlots through auctions.

      Dairy farms are generally all cows, and do not keep bulls. For them, artificial insemination is significantly cheaper and easier than maintaining bulls would be, and buying only the sperm also allows the farmers to select sperm from a wider variety of bulls, so that the farmer can have more predictable results in terms of both the calf’s genetics as well as the timing of the pregnancy.

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