Dairy cows could one day be genetically engineered to conceive only female offspring, so avoiding the birth of "unwanted" bull calves which are then sold on to the veal trade.
Researchers at Cambridge are already using a technique for separating individual sperm cells to produce calves whose sex can be determined in advance. The technique, developed by the US Department of Agriculture, has been licensed to the British biotechnology company Mastercalf.
According to professor Chris Polge, scientific consultant to Mastercalf, "the technique has been very successful. More than 90 per cent of the offspring are of the desired sex."
However, the technique is currently capable of sorting only about half a million sperms an hour. For use in artificial insemination (the way in which about 80 per cent of dairy cattle are bred), about ten million sperms are required per dose. As this would require up to 20 hours sorting, it is not a viable proposition.
Professor Polge said, "we have been using sorted sperm to achieve in vitro fertilisation, and to transplant embryos into recipient cows." The idea is to increase the proportion of bull embryos from a beef breed being implanted in the wombs of dairy cows.
Dairy herds have a turnover of 25 per cent a year, so with a 50:50 probability …