Reproductive Exploitation of Male Livestock Is an Overlooked Cornerstone of Factory Farming

The invasive practice of electroejaculation, revealed.

A closeup of a bull on a factory farm
Credit: Havva Zorlu / We Animals Media

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One of the most popular food labels — “natural” — is also one of the least regulated. In fact, it’s not really regulated at all. If it were, more consumers might become aware of just how much human engineering goes into our industrialized food system. One of the most shocking examples is the way the meat industry controls every aspect of animal reproduction, and male animals are no exception.

While the industry’s manipulation of male reproductive biology looks a little bit different than its exploitation of female animals’ reproductive systems, it’s no less common. At the heart of this engineering lies the process of artificial insemination, whereby semen is systematically harvested from male animals through invasive and often brutal methods.

Artificial insemination is standard practice on industrialized or factory farms — officially known as Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, or CAFOs — and while it may sound innocuous, the process can be excruciating for the male animals involved.

What Electroejaculation Entails

One of the most common ways of extracting semen from livestock is a procedure called electroejaculation. The details of the process differ slightly from species to species, but we’ll use cattle as an example of how the procedure is typically carried out.

First, the bull is restrained, because this is a painful process that he’ll physically resist. Before beginning the procedure, the farmer will grab the bull’s testicles and measure their circumference to make sure there’s enough semen in them to collect. Then, the farmer will take a probe roughly the size of a human forearm and forcibly insert it into the bull’s anus.

Once the probe is in place, it’s electrified, and the cattle receives a series of electric shocks, each 1-2 seconds long with a strength of up to 16 volts. Eventually, this causes him to involuntarily ejaculate, and the farmer collects the semen in a tube attached to a filter.

Needless to say, this is a very painful procedure for bulls, and they’ll kick, buck, scream and attempt to escape during the ordeal. As far as anesthetics go, epidural xylazine has been shown to reduce the behavioral signs of pain in animals during electroejaculation; however, the process is often performed without any anesthetic at all.

Less Harmful (But Still Invasive) Alternatives to Electroejaculation

Transrectal Massage

Sometimes, while preparing to carry out an electroejaculation, a farmer will first perform what’s called a transrectal massage. This involves internally stimulating the animal’s accessory sex glands, which sexually excites them and relaxes their sphincter muscles prior to the insertion of the electrical probe.

While transrectal massages are sometimes used to prepare an animal for electroejaculation, they can also be used as an outright replacement for it. Collecting semen from animals via transrectal massage takes longer than electroejaculation, but observational studies suggest that it subjects the animals to less stress and pain.

Transrectal massages are typically performed on bulls, but a similar procedure — known as a transrectal ultrasound-guided massage of the accessory sex glands, or TUMASG — is sometimes carried out on small ruminants, like sheep or goats, as an alternative to electroejaculation.

Artificial Vaginas or Manual Stimulation

A less extreme, but still unnatural, way to collect semen from farm animals is by using an artificial vagina. This is a tube-shaped implement, designed to simulate the inside of a vagina, with a collection vessel at the end of it.

First, a female animal of the same species — also known as the mount animal or the “teaser” — is restrained in place, and the male is led to her. He’s encouraged to mount her, and right after he does, a farmer quickly grabs the animal’s penis and inserts it into the artificial vagina. The male animal pumps away, perhaps unaware of the switcheroo, and his semen is collected.

For some species, such as boars, farmers utilize a similar process but without the artificial vagina. Instead, they’ll manually stimulate the male with their own hands, and collect the resulting semen in a flask or other vessel.

Why Don’t Farmers Let Animals Reproduce Naturally?

Farm animals, like all animals, are naturally inclined to reproduce; why not forgo artificial insemination entirely, and let them mate the old-fashioned way? There are a number of reasons, some more compelling than others.


A big motivator, as with most factory farm practices, is profitability. Artificial insemination gives farmers some degree of control over when the livestock on their farms give birth, and this allows them to respond more quickly to changes in demand or other market fluctuations. In addition, when compared with natural mating, artificial insemination requires fewer male animals to inseminate an equivalent number of females, which saves farmers some money on overhead.

Selective Breeding

Farmers also use artificial insemination as a tool for selective breeding. Farmers looking to buy livestock semen have a plethora of options at their disposal, and will often choose which type to use based on which traits they’d like to see in their herd.

Disease Prevention

As with many animals, female livestock can contract a lot of different diseases from semen. Artificial insemination allows semen to be tested before a female animal is impregnated, and for this reason, it can be an effective method for reducing the transmission of sexually transmitted and genetic diseases.

Fewer Males

Lastly, and this is specific to cattle, bulls can be dangerous creatures to keep around, and artificial insemination allows them to breed cows without requiring a bull on-site.

What Are the Downsides of Artificial Insemination?

Animal Suffering

As mentioned previously, certain forms of artificial insemination are extremely painful for the animals involved. It isn’t just male animals who suffer, either; the advent of artificial insemination allows farmers to ensure that female dairy cows are constantly pregnant, which results in significant trauma for the heifers, and wreaks havoc on their reproductive systems.

Potential Disease Spread

Although artificial insemination can be effective in preventing sexually transmitted disease, improperly tested semen can actually facilitate the spread of such disease much faster than with natural reproduction. Farmers will often use a single batch of semen to inseminate multiple animals, and if that semen is contaminated, disease can very quickly spread to an entire herd.

Other Mistakes

Perhaps surprisingly, artificial insemination can actually be more time-consuming than allowing farm animals to reproduce naturally, and it’s an easy procedure to botch. The capture, preservation and retrieval of animal semen are all very delicate processes that can only be carried out by trained professionals; if a mistake is made at any point, the entire procedure can fail, costing the farm more time and money than if they’d allowed the animals to reproduce naturally.

The Bottom Line

The details of artificial insemination are rarely, if ever, scrutinized by the public, and most consumers are unaware of the ghastly details. The acts even raise some troubling legal questions. As some have pointed out, anybody who artificially inseminates a cow in Kansas is technically violating that state’s anti-bestiality laws
Ultimately, reproduction is a foundational aspect of life, regardless of whether that life is a human, an animal, an insect, a plant or a bacterium. But on factory farms, it’s just one more aspect of life that animals aren’t allowed to experience naturally.

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