Travelogue – on the rounds with an inseminator (2005)

About eight years ago when I was roaming the country finding out about everything I could, I spent a fascinating and fun morning with an inseminator out on his run. Afterwards I wrote the following description, first published on my original blog back at the very end of 2005. I’m reposting this now for interest, and because on the weekend a search engine sent someone to my blog who was searching for “cow inseminator in wellies”.

When we were sitting around on Boxing Day night, I was chatting with Chris about his other job. He’s an AI tech. I come from a world where an AI tech is someone who speaks with a LISP and uses neural nets to catch ideas, who plays with machine perception and expert knowledge. They’re usually very pale folk, frequently caffeine-addicted, speaking in arcane languages. Chris is about as far from this as I can imagine. I ask him what AI is and he tells me – it’s artificial insemination. I ask him a couple of questions, and somehow this nominates me to going with him on his run the next morning. I jump at the chance.

We head off at seven in the morning, on our way to the first farm on the run. Chris is servicing an area not far from here, about thirty minutes drive. It’s interesting to see the difference in the farmland between here and W.A., the regular channels moving irrigation water from the Murray, the pastures bright green even in this weather. Flood irrigated. Pretty much every farm we’re going past is a dairy farm.

AI is an important job. Chris explains to me that in order to have year round milk, the herds are split in half and every six months one half-herd gets bred. No calves means no milk, so they need regular calves. A lot of the cows get done by being let loose with the bull, but not all of them. Herd management involves selective and thoughtful breeding. You could ship the bulls around, but it’s much easier to bring a selection of the business bits. That way you can pick your bull. He’s got the semen stored in liquid nitrogen in the back of the ute, so we spend a bit of time talking about the things we’ve each blown up with LN2 and the burns we’ve got from mishandling it. I dunno, the things a physicist and an artificial inseminator have in common -grin-.

The roads are empty and straight. Chris has his mobile phone in his hand most of the time as he drives, texting jokes back and forth but also checking in with his work to see if there’s any changes to the morning run. The population here is sparse compared to suburbia, but the joke lines are open and the chat is running hot.

We get to the first farm, and Chris goes around and lifts the side panel on the back of the ute. He checks his run sheet, and find he needs two serves of one particular bull. He checks on another list to see where those straws are kept. The LN2 vat has seven or eight dipper handles hooked over the mouth lip, each numbered. Chris selects one dipper and lifts it out of the vat. Inside the little canister are several mini-cylinders each carrying collections of teeny straws, about 1.5 mm wide, in all kinds of colours. He checks his list for the colour he needs and pulls out two, double-checks the tiny writing on the side, then drops them into a little stubbie-holder-sized warm water bath to thaw. You’re supposed to use tweezers to lift out the straws, because their tips are only sitting a centimetre or two above the liquid nitrogen, but like many AI techs he doesn’t waste the time fiddling. As long as you pay attention, you won’t get hurt. And Chris pays careful attention to all aspects of his job.

While the straws are thawing, he sets out two “guns” – long thin metal rods with coloured knobs on the end, and slips a plastic sheath over them. He fits the straws into the ends of the guns. Then he pulls on a long plastic glove and lifts out a two-litre jug of water. At least, I think it’s water, until he tips the bottle. It pours out in a thick and slow manner, dropping onto the back of his gloved hand. I say “That looks like lube”. He grins sideways at me as he picks up the two guns and says “It *is* lube.” I must look surprised as he walks off to the shed, arm held steady and flat with a big handful-size gob of lube on the back of the hand, because he looks back over his shoulder at me and says “You always need plenty of lube”.

I follow him into the shed, where the farmer is just finishing the last of his milking. This shed uses a rotary platform, a big circle which turns. Cows are herded on at one spot, hooked on, then left to spin slowly around the circle to the exit chute where a second person unhooks each cow and sends them off down the ramp. It makes for a continuous stream of cows, rather than the group-at-a-time routine we had going yesterday. The farmer oversees his last two cows off the platform, then comes over to join us.

The two cows selected for breeding today are herded into a dead-end chute. Chris puts the stems of the two guns in his mouth, then steps into the chute, lifts the tail of the last cow aside and shoves his fist right up her to about the elbow. The cow gives him a very bemused look. He takes one of the guns out of his mouth with the other hand, and carefully inserts it underneath where his hand is, withdraws it, then pulls out his gloved hand. The farmer pulls out a can of blue spray paint, sprays a stripe on her left haunch. Chris climbs back out through the chute rails, and the farmer slaps the cow. She backs up and out, leaving the second one free. The second time, I notice that he’s not putting his arm into her vagina as I thought. That glove was definitely covered with cowpat. No wonder the cow is trying to move forward away from his fist. He pulls out, hops out of the chute, the farmer slaps the cow out. She lets fly with a balloon of gas and a pile of shit, then exits looking disturbed. I sympathise.

Chris gets the farmer to sign his book and fill out the right spots, then grabs his guns, puts them back in the car and we head off to the next farm. I ask him about it, why they do the arm thing. He tells me that he’s feeling for the cervix. The advantage the AI techs have over a bull is that they’re feeding the semen through the cervix, getting it into the right spot so that they can have the same probability of pregnancy with a third of the sperm. In order to do that, it’s a bit like threading a needle – you need both hands. So he reaches in, finds the cervix – a big lump around the size of a tennis ball – and gets a grip on it, and then uses that to guide the gun end through a hole in the cervix that’s about the size of a ball-point pen.

The next two farms are fairly straight forward. I watch more closely now I know what I’m looking at, and pick up more of the little details. Like the way Chris takes the open end of the glove in both hands and briefly tugs it a little lengthways before he puts it on. That little stretch tenses and narrows the plastic, making a tight band that holds the glove to his upper arm. No chance of losing it up the cow or having it come off when you don’t want 🙂 There’s the casual way the farmer tosses the spray can aside into the usual piles of junk you get around any farm shed. Or how Chris stores the used guns in his gumboot, out of the way while he does the next cow. I watch him stuff his overall pockets with paper towels when setting up at the ute, then carefully use them to wipe the outside of the cows vagina clean before he goes to put the gun in. The insemination is quick, taking maybe thirty seconds a cow. Chris tells me in the car that one of the things he likes about the job is that it’s quick. He’s well practiced, well organised, so he gets through the cows quickly. This is important when you get paid $2.20 per cow. I tell him he’s a thirty-second wonder.

It takes a little longer than two times thirty seconds to do each farm on the run though, more like five to ten minutes. The first three farms only have two cows each to do, which is sixty seconds. Then there’s a little bit of set-up time, but that’s very efficient. Where the extra few minutes go is in chat and conversation. Farming life tends to be a bit isolated – you often work with the same people you live with, and they might be family you’ve known all your life. You don’t see a lot of people each day. The AI tech is a bit of an anomaly – someone who’s unrelated and not from the neighbouring farms, who’s coming by every day in the breeding month. Someone you get to know, see daily, but don’t live with. Chris by default becomes a conduit for information, chatting to the farmers about what other blokes are doing with their herd programmes, who’s using which bulls and getting what kind of calves off them, what’s happening with this farm or that farm. Swapping a joke or two, kidding each other a bit. He’s a roving network node on the rural hotline, linking people who might otherwise only be in contact with each other once a week at best. He brings information, but also an extra sense of community, belonging, knowledge, interaction. I don’t know if he’s aware of how important that is to some of the blokes we see this morning. It’s something you take for granted when you live out here where there’s space between people.

While we drive between farms, I pump Chris for more information about the job. He’s driving a company car, with his fuel and phone costs covered. I can tell it’s a company car, because there’s a big No Smoking sticker just above the pocket where he tucks his tobacco pouch and rolly papers. He’s also on a minimum run, which says that he gets paid a minimum of $45 each morning, regardless of how few cows he does. That’s important at times like this at the tail end of the breeding time. The farmers are down to the last few cows that haven’t fallen pregnant yet, and you wouldn’t want to do the drive for just six dollars. I ask him how many cows he does, and he says it’s maybe five thousand cows in a season. At the peak time, he was doing around a hundred inseminations a day. That’s stamina -grin-.

He tells me about some overseas AI techs they had working for the company this year. They were brought in because of their experience, and to flush in a little new knowledge. Chris wasn’t entirely impressed with them, wasn’t too sure about their ability to not damage the cows in what’s really a quite invasive process, but wasn’t too fussed by them either. He tells me with pride though that despite their experience an Australian outdid them. Him. In the season they were here he did more cows *and* had a higher conception rate – over 70%, the best in the company. I ask him what it takes to get a high conception rate. Curiously, it turns out to be nothing to do with the technology or his technique. He tells me that it’s a little trick an old woman taught him, someone who’d been around a long time. It doesn’t matter how good the AI tech is, the cows can only get pregnant if they’re done on the one day they’re in season. The farmers are taking temperatures and recording them, picking out the day that the heifers will be ready. If they’re accurate with their temperature measurements and records, the AI tech has a good chance. If they’re out by a day, he has no chance. So Chris talks with the farmers as he goes around, makes sure they understand this. They’re generally willing to listen, because it costs them less to get it right the first time. He builds a good sense of trust with them, and they take their measurements very carefully, and it works for all of them.

At the last farm we have a new wrinkle. Chris has got a message by phone from his work that says there’s a change in the order. So the farmer and he get their heads together over the book and start discussing options. The problem is that you want to avoid dad on daughter. The farmer’s realised that the bull he’d picked out is too closely related to the recent male heritage of the cows he’s breeding today. He’s called the company, who’ve said that he can use some of the general donor material Chris is carrying. So he and Chris discuss pedigrees, which bull is related to which other bull, for the relevant breeds of cow. They select the best option, making reference to what’s known about some of the calves each bull has produced, and Chris pulls out the straws.

At this farm, there’s three different sets of semen being used for seven cows. Chris carefully grabs two blue guns, two green and three red guns, and attaches the straws by colour. The farmer carries the log book. I get allocated carrying the guns. They get half the cows in the chute, and the farmer tells Chris which semen type each cow gets. He tells me which colour gun that is and I pass him one, being very careful not to drop any of them. We work our way through, trying to make sure we don’t get any confusion. As Chris pulls out from the last one the farmer calls out “I hope you made that one a heifer!”.

While the farmer is checking through the log book, filling out the blank spaces and signing it off, Chris pulls me aside into the milking shed, to show me the hardware. He says it’s a swing-over 25’er. That makes sense – it holds twentyfive cows, or at least twentyfive rigs, and the rigs are attached in the central aisle in such a way that you can swing them to either ramp. I’m fascinated, but I still tease Chris about dragging me off into the milking shed to show me his hardware.

And then it’s back home, all done for the day. It’s a quiet drive, looking at the flat farmland with willow trees growing as weeds along the channels, talking a bit more about the job. When we get back, Chris’s dad is sitting in the loungeroom watching the cricket. He asks me how it went. I clap him on the shoulder and tell him his son is the best inseminator in the company. Chris starts to go red.

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