SALEM, Ohio — The farm lane is lined with a welcoming committee. It appears a group of cats has gathered in the drive, waiting on Andy to get here for his daily routine.
There are two barns visible, both filled with cattle, and Andy points to the large freestall barn where we are going.
The cows let out an occasional moo, but he doesn’t seem to hear them. It’s obvious his mind is already racing to the job ahead — and under his breath, Andy wonders how many cows are to be inseminated.
Meet Andy Thomas, a technician for more than 15 years with COBA Select Sires.
Thomas has an office on wheels. The green Chevy pickup truck contains all of the items he will need to make it through a day on the road.
Paperwork sits neatly on the seat in the middle in its hard case so it doesn’t get lost or fall out of the truck. Beside the case is a notebook. In it are little notes about each farm. Some are a note or two about what cows he inseminated. Others about health issues. Some notes are simply that he was at a specific farm and checked over a herd.
His cellphone, just above the visor, is his lifeline to home and clients.
Sometimes producers call after noticing signs of heat. This means Thomas needs to get to the farm that day — and not tomorrow — for a chance at the pregnancy occurring.
All customers have until noon to call in and request Thomas come to their farm, so his day starts out early with routine stops. This usually means herd checks, especially dairy farms. It isn’t until the afternoon that Thomas can determine how the day will develop.
The day starts around 7 a.m. and it ends when it ends, as he puts it. Because he works with farmers, there is no normal work day, just an average day.
Thomas jumps out of the truck and looks for the farmer.
He reaches for a Thermos that’s plugged into the truck’s cigarette lighter.
Something tells me this isn’t going to be used to pour that much-needed cup of coffee. He catches my look and says no there’s no coffee or even soup to heat up. He uses the Thermos for an unlikely purpose: to defrost cow semen.
Grabbing a brush from the back of his pickup truck, Thomas heads straight to a hose and fills a bucket with water and soap. He starts washing his boots, saying how important it is to clean his boots after every farm visit so he doesn’t track germs from one farm to another.
From the way, he scrubs the boots, it’s more than a chore and more than a job duty. He obviously cares about where his boots have been and how they could hurt a farmer’s bottom line.
He stops for a moment and inspects the boots. He goes back to brushing one last time, then gives them a quick rinse, and heads into the barn.
He is greeted by the farmer. The conversation is quick and to the point.
“When we were milking, #85 was showing signs,” the farmer said.
“Oh, wasn’t expecting that one. There were a few others yesterday I suspected,” Thomas replies.
On a busy day, Thomas will inseminate between 40-50 cows. On a record day, he has inseminated 72. It’s a combination of the time of year, if a farm is giving hormone shots to trigger a cow’s ovulation — and, of course, what no one can control — nature’s hands.
As he works, he can’t help but talk about farms.
“It becomes your life,” Thomas said. “Farms are the backbone of America. I firmly believe it. Without them we wouldn’t be able to eat. They make the United States what it is.”
Thomas talks about not only the larger farms he visits, but the smaller ones as well — each farm has its own place.
Whether it is a farm with just one cow for Thomas to inseminate once a year or a farm with hundreds, they are all important to Thomas, and he can’t imagine not having one without the other.
As nimble as a gymnast, Thomas climbs over a green gate. He opens the red one and closes the blue one behind him. What some would consider a maze, Thomas considers a gateway to the cattle herd.
Now, if the cattle maze isn’t enough, here comes the really difficult part. Try to keep your footing as you trample through cow manure on cement floors. And in the winter, combine the ice and snow that blows in, and you have yourself an ice skating rink.
Thomas doesn’t give it a second thought. He keeps moving.
Slowly and surely, he walks the aisles in the barn with his arms stretched out at his sides. It’s as important for the cows to keep their footing as well, so he has to be careful not to step too quickly as to scare a cow and cause them injury. The slippery cement flooring could prove dangerous to the 1,000- pound dairy cows in this barn, as well as him.
He keeps one eye on the cows, another on what he is doing, and somehow it appears he keeps one in the back of his head to see what the cows in back of him may be doing.
You have to be cautious of what’s happening behind you, he says.
He knows this from firsthand experience. He has had cattle come up behind him and jump on his back, trying to ride him as they come into heat. He adds it is all about keeping your eyes open for whatever can happen in a barn that you think can’t happen.
Thomas walks slowly, checking the herd for signs of heat. He has to be able to distinguish physical signs of heat on the cow, but he also has to be able to notice discernible animal behavior.
He stops at a cow that is showing signs of possible heat and palpates her, sliding his arm through the rectum to feel the cervix.
He will go through the herd, palpating the cows he has noted from his stop in the office, or from physical signs he has noted to himself, or from notes left by the farmer. He then goes to work, marking them for breeding and to show he checked them for signs of heat.
Thomas stops to look at an ear tag. Just from the tag, Thomas can tell you if she has been having a hard time getting pregnant. He paints the date on her back and moves on.
“Ugh. This one must have had a silent heat (no outward physical signs of a heat) and didn’t show signs,” Thomas points to one Holstein as he takes a closer look and then brushes some paint with the date on her back.
The paint is a type of solution that scrapes off easily and has Bitrex in it to discourage others from licking it. It is also designed to come off easily if another cow brushes up against it.
After completing the herd check, Thomas climbs out of the cow area and heads back to the barn. Most herds have an area set aside for COBA Select Sires. It’s often equipped with a computer with cow records and he can connect to the COBA computer system where semen records can be accessed.
Thomas types in the cow’s information, and the history of the cow appears — how many days has she been milking, her birthdate, her dam and sire, how many times she has been bred and the last time she was bred and to what sire.
Now comes the genetic magic. Thomas considers the paternity of the cow and who she has been bred to in the past when making his genetic selection.
“There is no better feeling than seeing your work come together,” Thomas says. He enjoys the challenge of taking the dam (recognizing her genetic background) and combining it with the genetics of a sire to create a calf with the best of both parents’ qualities.
He combs through a reference book to get a look at the bull. The information includes details on how his daughters have developed, birthing ease they have reported, and how much milk output has been produced. If it isn’t a milk cow, other factors can also be determined.
Editor’s note: Some of the photographs included in the slide show were taken this past summer and some were from this winter.
Thomas then opens the book, playing matchmaker to the cows. He looks through the book to determine who might be a good mate genetically. If she has had trouble with conception, he may give special consideration to one bull over another.
Thomas pores over the pages, taking this part of his job very seriously. He notes the statistics given on each bull, then turns back to the computer screen to look at the cow’s background. Back and forth.
A decision is made. Now it’s on to the insemination process itself.
Thomas goes back to his Chevy. In the bed, sits a large liquid nitrogen tank filled with semen. Some farms also have their own tanks filled with the semen from sires they prefer.
“The tank holds the magic,” he said.
“When you think about it, this tank holds many farmers’ futures,” Thomas said. “The tank holds more than just the seeds to determine the future of a herd, maybe even the entire breed.”
Thomas points out each breed has a place in the farm world. Holstein, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Angus, Hereford.
“No matter what, each has its own place,” he said.
On top of the tank are tags listing what is held in each compartment. He lifts the top of the tank, and checks the tubes of magic that make his job possible.
Next to the tank is a toolbox. Inside are gloves extending up to his armpit, tubes and other insemination tools.
Thomas pulls the straw of semen from the tank, and puts it in a Thermos of warm water to defrost the semen.
The semen inside the tubes from the nitrogen tank has to be defrosted before it can be inserted, otherwise, the effort is wasted. He warms it to between 92 and 98 degrees before it can be implanted.
He takes the tube and puts in a sleeve. Now, he has only about 20 minutes to get the job done before the sperm loses viability. He slips the tube inside his cover-alls so it has a little added temperature protection.
Back to the barn. Then it is out to the cow maze again. Thomas climbs over the green gate again. Opens the red one and closes the blue one behind him.
He walks up behind the cow, double checks the cow’s identity, and then puts on a glove that reaches from his fingertips to his shoulder. He makes sure the cover is on the straw of semen. Then, with the tube in his hand, he reaches in through the cow’s rectum to her cervix. He feels for it and begins the insemination process. Within two minutes, the whole thing is done.
He walks up to the front of the barn and looks around.
It is time to gather his tool box and supplies and head back to the truck.
He climbs behind the steering wheel of his Chevy and checks his cell phone to see if any farmers have called with a request to come out to a farm. And then he takes a moment and begins to map out the route to the next farm.
“I would like to say I could plan my day, but it just wouldn’t happen. You can bet that if I did that, then when I checked my phone, all of my plans would be thrown out the window,” Thomas said.
Geneticist, computer technician, gymnast, animal behaviorist and, at times, his own mapping system. The job description is reproductive technician with COBA Select Sires, and a day with one will show the job is anything but simple.