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Harvest Public Media is a reporting collaboration focused on issues of food, fuel and field. Based at KCUR in Kansas City, Missouri, Harvest covers agriculture-related topics through a network of reporters and partner stations throughout the Midwest.

Eggs, Milk, Semen ... The Grocery List Of Hog Genetics

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media
Brooke Beelner, lab manager at Swine Genetics International, checks semen samples for movement of the sperm and any irregularities in the cells. The old TV shows the image from the microscope.

When a man places 40 dozen eggs on the conveyor in the check-out line at the grocery store, it begs the question: What’s he going to do with all of them?

This happened to Kim Becker in Ames, Iowa. The man’s answer left her so gobsmacked, she posted it on Facebook:

Swine Genetics International (SGI) is about 20 minutes from that store.

“That could have been me or it could have been a number of people here,” SGI Chief of Operations Michael Doran says about the supermarket run.

Credit Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
A stack of coolers lines one wall of the lab at Swine Genetics International, where Michael Doran is chief of operations. The company ships fresh and frozen semen around the world.

SGI has three barns that can house up to 180 boars, from which workers collect samples a couple of times a week. Doran says that semen is shipped around the world — sometimes fresh, sometimes frozen. But the semen is fragile, so to preserve its viability, companies like SGI combine it with a solution called an extender.

“The whole purpose of an extender is to extend the life of the semen,” says Benny Mote, a swine extension specialist at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. “It gives nutrients to the sperm so they will keep swimming,” and it dilutes the semen so one collection can be divided into many doses.

Mote says most companies ship fresh swine semen because it doesn’t hold up well when frozen and then thawed.

In the early days of artificial insemination, he says, extenders often contained egg yolks. SGI still does that, though most of the handful of companies supplying the $191 million annual domestic market for boar semen haveswitched to other ingredients.

Credit Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media
Harvest Public Media
Liquid nitrogen is used to freeze and store thin plastic straws containing boar semen. Michael Doran, chief of operations at Swine Genetics International, sucks out some nitrogen gas that forms when the vat is opened and offers a peek at the frozen stash.

Al Wulfekuhle, a longtime hog farmer and breeder in the northeast Iowa town of Quasqueton, says buying semen for his sows gets him better quality pigs than just letting the animals mate. He is able to work with his genetics supplier to receive sperm with the traits he thinks are most important, and without the characteristics he would prefer to avoid.

“The advantage is that they do all the research and collect the top boars,” Wulfekuhle says.

Artificial insemination is more practical for other reasons, too, Mote says. First, it means one boar’s semen can be widely distributed, leading to more pregnancies and, eventually, more market hogs. That’s important because U.S. producers send more than 170 million pigs to be slaughtered each year.

“Your labor cost is significantly less by not having to have that many boars around,” Mote says of producers, noting most places now have only one or two boars per farm. “The safety and the welfare of the labor is a lot better because boars are notorious for being mean and causing injury.”

Wulfekuhle keeps a boar around just to provide the pheromones that trigger ovulation in the sows. Otherwise, he buys fresh, not frozen semen, as do most U.S. pork producers, who these days are doing upwards of 95 percent of all breeding with artificial insemination.

While some of the basic biology has become obsolete, Wulfekuhle says Mother Nature can still throw a wrench into the best-laid plans.

“You get semen twice a week and you have all these animals ready to breed,” he says, “and then you have a snowstorm or an ice storm.” He’s had to drive to meet a delayed courier in an attempt to get fresh semen while sows are in heat.

Credit Amy Mayer / Harvest Public Media, File Photo
Harvest Public Media, File Photo
The advent of artificial insemination has allowed hog farmers to control for the best possible genetics, resulting in more pigs of consistent size and quality.

SGI says it tries to guarantee the semen will do its job when the time comes, whether it’s shipped fresh or packed frozen into shipping crates with liquid nitrogen. But Doran remains evasive when it comes to why —and how — SGI uses those store-bought eggs.

“There's a foundation, and using a lot of natural ingredients you could find at a grocery store, and it's evolved over time,” he says. “We feel like we've developed and evolved a proprietary recipe that, as we see both in the U.S. and abroad, we have a very high degree of success with.”

Besides that, he says milk also once was an ingredient in extenders. So be on the lookout for someone buying an inordinate amount of milk at the supermarket in a hog-producing state.

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.