Joshua's Farm

New England Farm Log

June 17, 2012


It's a fancy term now that wouldn't have been used a century or two ago. Artificial insemination came into use after World War II, when science advanced to allow farmers to pick bulls from around the world to improve the genetic quality of their dairy herds. Farms with 30 animals were considered large, and were pastured on fields outlined by the rocks collected from within. Today, farms with thousands of animals are growing in number, while small farms are vanishing because they can't compet despite innovations like milking machines, vacuum pipelines to collect it and cooling systems that didn't exist a century ago. Cows can only give milk after they give birth to a calf. So breeding them is crutial not ony to production, but to replacing older cows in the herd - older meaning about ten years on a traditional farm and just five at a large commercial dairy- with young heifers.

Until the mid 1900s, farmers shared the best bulls. Distance and availability limited choices and breeds. It was an effort to transport a cow and keep her at a neighbor's farm to breed her in heat...or leave her with the neighbor's bull for a month until she cycled. The effort was to find bulls that had the genetic inclination to produce offspring that gave lots of milk. In the 1950s when the transition was made to artificial insemination, a good cow gave 6,00 pounds of milk per lactation of 10-12 months. That's about two to two and a half gallons a day... today's productive cow easily doubles that number, and sometimes, as Daisy does, triples it. Some oversized holsteins give four times that. The size of a holstein udder can reach the size of a wheelbarrow. For minor breeds, they are still the size of a birthday balloon. So how do you breed a cow if you don't have a bull?

There are companies out there...Genex and Select Sires...that allow you to "go to the races" and pick your heritage...figure out what attributes you want to enhance and custom design your producer...maybe better butterfat (we are working on that here) and find a bull with a pedigree of cows producing good butterfat instead of volume. want better legs and frame can pick that too. But remember that what you enhance comes at the expense of something lost. Then you wait for a heat...that means a standing heat. A cow or heifer will stand still and not run off when another cow or heifer mounts her as if for a bull...thus standing heat. Cows have very good noses to detect subtle changes in breeding cycles. you have 12 hours after that standing heat begins to get the breeder to adepty insert a straw of semen and deposit it just outside the uterus, or else you wait another three weeks. Reesha Jacquier came June 8, two hours after I called. Reesha is a skilled breeder for the Genex Co. and an offspring of the JAcquier clan of farmers in Canaan...Her father is also an auctioneer . She handles bidding documents when a big auction is held on weekends, recognizing most farmers by her work and knows their animals. She recalled that I had lost a bull calf and wondered if a diagnosis had been made.

Reesha arrives with a dry ice tank with "straws" of semen, labelled with nearly invisible codes and the partial name of the bull. She inserted the straw in a stainless steel stylet and inserted it into the cow's cervix. The match this time was with Spungold Playboy...the son of Gold Mine Poppy, a prized roan colored milker from Pennsylvania with a low somatic cell count valued as a healthy immune system and high milk volume. Daisy was in heat heard by the bells moving about in the field. The somewhat unusual sight of two cows in heat was revealed by daylight...ring around the rosy chasing eachother's rumps and mounting in standing progression. Reesha bred both Daisy and Thyme, and found the mucus to be favorable. Shorthorns tend to be very fertile. I have yet to have Genex return because of a missed attempt. The cost per cow is about $37, one of the best bargains out there. Semen ordered by mail to breed a sow (pig) by comparison, is about $100, and you need to perform the delicate work of breeding yourself. In recent years, sexed semen became available to determine the sex of the calf - almostly overwhelmingly the choice is heifers. The cost of the semen is much higher and the chance of pregnancy is smaller. Holsteins, bred for volume, fail more often. A cow that fails to "breed back" on a second attempt at a factory farm becomes your next supermarket hamburger. It isn't cost effective to take the next step and give her lutalase to reroute her cycle. Daisy and Thyme were back munching green grass this evening...both seem to have settled down from their frenetic midnight dancing. In 270 days after this glorious mid June day, they will return the favor with a calf and milk.