In a string of recent burglaries, thieves have targeted dairy farmers to steal a valuable commodity: bull semen.

The semen, valued at $22,000 in one Rock County case, is used to breed high-end cows for the show ring and milk production.

Farmers believe thieves might be selling the semen on the black market.

“In this day and age with the economy, it’s not really a loss I was looking forward to,” Orfordville dairyman Doug Nifong said. “Our belief is it’s probably being stolen for resale. That’s the million dollar question.”

Nifong and three other area farmers recently had liquid nitrogen tanks full of frozen semen stolen from their properties.

Nifong’s farm was burglarized in late March, and 200 samples were stolen. He said farms in Poy Sippi in Adams County, Ixonia in Jefferson County and Hampshire, Ill., southeast of Rockford, Ill., were hit around the same time.

“We all know one another, and we’re all registered breeders. We all show,” Nifong said. “It’s a big industry, but it’s a small family when it comes to things like this.”

A bull semen theft also was reported in Brodhead in July 2008. About 100 embryos or semen samples valued at $35,000 were stolen. They were from award-winning cattle, according to a Rock County Sheriff’s Office report.

Investigators in the Brodhead case, however, believe the thieves wanted the tank for scrap metal, Capt. Todd Christiansen said. The semen probably wasn’t targeted.

Paul Zimmerman, the Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s executive director of public affairs, said he has never heard of semen thefts in his 16 years with the bureau.

Donna Gilson, spokeswoman for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, said her office also hasn’t heard any complaints.

“It’s nothing that we’re aware of or that has been a trend in the past,” she said. “I can’t believe it’s terribly widespread or we would have caught wind of it.”

Dairy farmers keep semen to artificially inseminate cows when they’re ready to breed. A sample must be used as soon as it is removed from the tank.

Semen is valuable if the bull has a proven record of breeding top-notch cows, Nifong said. Cows born to certain bulls are more marketable.

“You can buy semen ranging from $5, which would be your very low end, to as high as $2,000 per unit,” he said.

The tank stolen off Nifong’s farm weighed 250 pounds, stood 3 feet high and was 3 feet in diameter. Tanks have a self-contained refrigeration unit filled with super cold liquid nitrogen every month.

“You could move it, but you’re not going to go very far with it without putting it in some type of vehicle,” Nifong said. “I’ve been involved in the dairy industry my whole life. Over the years, you occasionally hear of a unit coming up missing here or there, but never a tank.”

Some of the semen in Nifong’s tank came from bulls that are no longer alive. The semen is irreplaceable.

Nifong said he is not sure whether his insurance will cover his loss. Because of an insurance glitch, the tank was insured, but its contents were not.

“We’d love to get our tanks back,” he said. “When someone steals from you, it’s wrong.”

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