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Chat with black bulls

At a time when our European partners, unworried, were blithely importing US semen, Britain's veterinary experts banned it - a perfect reversal of today's BSE positions. Now the Holstein herd is growing, a big effort is under way to produce high-proof bulls, establish an efficient domestic trade and turn Britain into a net exporter.The drive has been championed by the Duke of Westminster, one of the country's biggest dairy farmers.

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For example, semen from a bull whose daughters produce 1,000 kilos of milk per year above average might sell for pounds 15.

This milestone in Mr Major's beef war seems a fitting moment to examine a substance often overlooked. It is quicker, simpler and more efficient than the natural way (and less dangerous, since dairy bulls are ferocious beasts).

A measure of how efficient: in one American herd of 2,000 cows, every animal was inseminated up to three times over a period of nine weeks, and no fewer than 98 per cent became pregnant.

(One of their chat-up lines: "Some men can't give their semen away; people pay me for mine.") It is kept in "straws", or plastic phials, containing a tiny quantity of semen diluted in albumen, or egg-white.

The straws, frozen in liquid nitrogen, are stored in warehouses around the country.

An industrious bull may perform every day; a lazy one only once a week. Other bulls mount and inseminate females in the natural way, and the semen is then extracted from the cow.