In his nearly 16 years in the Frederick County Sheriff's Office, Detective Chuck Jenkins has seen a lot: old-fashioned cattle rustling, grand theft tractor and thousands of more-pedestrian crimes. But he's never seen anything quite like his most recent whodunit: the case of the stolen bull semen.
The burglary took place Sunday in Smithsburg while Eric Fleming was away from his farm, Stonewood Acres. When he got home that night from a visit to relatives in Pennsylvania, he found that the 70-pound semen tank he had in an outbuilding was open, with the electrical cord pulled out of the liquid nitrogen refrigerator, Jenkins said. Sixty-five "straws," containing the precious bodily fluids of 40 to 50 bulls, were missing.
Jenkins said they were worth $75,000.
"I will give a nice fat reward for any information on semen that was stolen from my tank today," Fleming wrote in a message posted on the Breeders' World Web forum this week. "It was a mother load of semen that I consigned to Denver sale."
"How awful!!!" a member wrote back. "I hope you find who did it, and press charges. That is just plain disturbing."
Fleming, who breeds Shorthorn cattle, did not return several calls yesterday and was not at home when a reporter visited his red farmhouse, set back from John Cline Road on Catoctin Mountain in the northwestern part of the county.
It took Fleming years to build up his stock of bull semen, which he had planned to sell in January at a cattle show in Denver, Jenkins said. Frozen bull semen is big business because it saves on the transportation cost of putting a bull and a cow into the same pen to breed. Frozen semen can also last for many years, outliving the bull who produced it.
Nonetheless, collecting and keeping the semen can be a challenge. Bulls, for all their reputation for virility, are notoriously finicky about breeding. Their sperm counts are generally low; moreover, it is difficult to collect samples from a bull.
Semen is put in a 41/2- to 5-inch long straw and labeled with the name of its sire.
From there, it is frozen, to be injected later into a cow, known as a dam. Breeders keep careful track of everything: A registered animal will have a well-documented pedigree going back generations that attests to its genetic fitness. A lack of documentation could help authorities catch the culprit, Jenkins said -- an honest buyer would know that the semen had been stolen.
Jenkins said the thief, if he intended to sell the semen, would have to have a portable freezer of his own. Because of the specialized knowledge and equipment required to keep and sell the straws, Jenkins said, the number of potential suspects is limited, but the culprit could have come from a distant state. For that reason, both Jenkins and Fleming have publicized the crime in the hope that someone will provide a tip.
Jenkins said he had a lead but declined to provide details.
"I don't know how far it's going to take me," he said.
Jenkins, who grew up on a farm himself, realized there was also a certain lowbrow comic value in the theft of a bull's seminal fluid, but he did not want anyone to laugh at this case. It is a serious criminal matter, he said.
For a farmer, it was "the equivalent of someone coming and stealing your ExxonMobil stocks," Jenkins said. "As funny as it sounds, it's his livelihood."