Keeping Cows in Calf

7/13/2013 7:00 AM
By Philip Gruber Staff Writer

MANHEIM, Pa. — Artificially inseminating a cow is like riding a bike, said Murray Sinclair, a Select Sire Power sales manager. “Once you know it, you won’t forget it.”

In fact, it’s like riding a very lucrative bike.

Jared Zimmerman, a Select Sire Power technician supervisor, told a group of ag teachers in Lancaster County this week that their students can make $40,000 to $140,000 a year in the commission-based job.

The teachers were assembled for the Pennsylvania Association of Agricultural Educators Summer Institute, held July 8-11 at Manheim Central Middle School.

The presentation on artificial insemination, one of several workshops at the gathering, fit in well with the conference theme, “Col lege Prepped & Career Ready.”

The artificial insemination, or AI, industry has a variety of good careers that are open to recent high school or college graduates, Kirk Sattazahn, Select Sire Power’s marketing director, said.

On-call technicians tend to serve smaller herds. Their work schedule changes frequently and can include nights, weekends and holidays. These technicians visit many farms and work on several cows at each stop.

Full-service technicians serve larger herds and have more consistent work hours. Because they have more cows at each stop, they spend a longer time at each farm than on-call technicians do.

Full-service techs offer many services, including insemination, tail painting and shot administration.

Direct herd salesmen help sell semen and require more training than technicians because they need to be able to answer a farmer’s every question about bovine reproduction. The salesmen also have larger territories than the technicians.

Dairy coordinators help farmers mate cows and avoid inbreeding.

Reproductive specialists are a newer, more technical sector of the field. These scientists develop software to assist with the steps in the reproductive process.

The technological advances in AI have produced many consulting and educational positions in a field that used to be all glove-on-the-hand, Sattazahn said.

Learning to recognize signs of heat is an especially valuable skill, Sinclair said, because the estrus period is very short for dairy cattle and the signs of heat are becoming incredibly subtle.

Semen production is its own high-tech industry, Sattazahn said. The Select Sires cooperative has a facility in Plain City, Ohio, that produces more than 20 million units of semen a year from bulls performing standing mounts on artificial vaginas.

The facility mates top-producing animals, checks the sperm’s genomic profile for the probable quality of the prospective calves and tests the animals for diseases.

The semen is frozen in liquid nitrogen at minus 328 degrees Fahrenheit.

After it is thawed, the lab checks the semen’s flow and eliminates batches that have sperm with abnormal heads.

Through the numerous checks, the factory discards a lot of semen in an effort to make sure farmers receive the best quality material.

Sex-selected semen is a growing trend in the industry as some producers are looking to breed for all bull calves or all heifers, Sattazahn said.

To separate sperm by sex, dyed semen is passed through a laser beam. Sperm with female genes show up brighter than male sperm, and the cells with the preferred trait are collected, while the cells of the other sex are discarded. The process is fast and 92 percent accurate, he said.

Although every step in the AI process is challenging, Sinclair said that the biggest difficulty for beginners is learning how to get the gun through the cervix.

Students should also “beware of the fornix,” an indentation outside the cervix, Sinclair said. Many novices will mistake hitting the pocket of the fornix for having gotten into the uterine body and will deposit the semen in the fornix, where it is unlikely to get through the cervix, he said.

Cows are the only farm animals with a fornix. AI “is just so simple with pigs” because swine inseminators do not have to worry about getting stuck outside the cervix, Sinclair said.

The cervix also has three annular rings of unaligned, hard cartilage to ease the gun between, and the handler must be careful not to push too far and pierce the wall of the uterus, which is sensitive and similar to the inside of a human cheek, he said.

Every beginner must find a personal technique for handling the cervix, he said.

Teachers must also make sure students pay attention to small details in the AI process. Sinclair warned numerous times of the mistakes, such as neglecting to touch the cow to alert her of the human’s presence, that could get the inseminator kicked.

Keeping fingernails cut and taking off rings are second nature to experienced AI techs, but students need to form these habits to keep the animal comfortable.

Students also need to learn to be both patient and efficient. Semen must be deposited within 15 minutes after being removed from the liquid nitrogen tank to avoid the buildup of toxins in the rod from semen defecation.

On the other hand, hasty inseminators can jab the cow’s bladder. If the technician deposits the semen too quickly, he will retract the gun into the cervix, where the semen will get trapped.

Students also need to learn proper sanitation, such as using a plastic sleeve to keep the gun clean until ready to deposit and checking the gun afterward for signs of infection, Sinclair said.

Regular bull semen from Select Sires can run $4 to $50 per unit, and sex-selected semen can run $25 to $85 per unit. Add in the other costs riding on cattle reproduction — worker wages, lost profits from missed opportunities — and it is clear that students who are proficient in artificial insemination have an employment advantage over those who are not.

Pennsylvania FFA President Chris Toevs attended the session to help behind the scenes and assist the presenters. He was also there to learn, as FFA members at the conference all chose workshops on topics unfamiliar to them.

Toevs, a recent Cumberland Valley High School graduate, did not learn AI in his ag classes. He focused on herd and flock management, and natural reproduction.

As for Sinclair’s comparison to riding a bicycle, Toevs said, “I kind of agree with that. I’m never going to forget sticking a rod in a cow’s vagina.”

Session coordinator Diane Glock-Corman, a Penn Manor High School ag teacher, said that she and many of her fellow educators teach AI.

While learning the process from diagrams is important, she said that hands-on practice is essential to learning the skill.

Glock-Corman gets cow reproductive systems from local processors — it is good to have a good relationship with them, she said — and from corporate reps.

She believes teaching students AI skills helps her pupils become marketable and successful farmworkers.

“There are definitely jobs in these industries,” she said.<\c> Photo by Philip Gruber

An ag teacher practices artificially inseminating a cow reproductive track.

Photo by Philip Gruber

Kirk Sattazahn of Select Sire checks ag teacher Curt Turner’s job of artificially inseminating a cow reproductive track as Turner’s son watches.

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