DAMASCUS, Ohio – It’s below 40 degrees in here, cold enough to see your breath and lose track of your fingertips. Steam rises from fresh-dumped cow manure in the auction barn’s alleyways. The air reeks of wet cattle and sawdust.
In the next three days, grown women and men will shiver, sweat, laugh and cry here.
They’ll work hard, pushing through two nights and one day of lessons and hands-on practice.
But in the end, only one question matters: Can I get the job done?
* * *
Seven men and three young ladies sit hip to hip in a single row, eyes forward, stone faced. They’re either too cold to warm up to each other, or too nervous about what’s ahead to speak.
They hold bibles, the binders stuffed with papers to show them the right thing to do. They flip the pages, skimming words with their fingertips. Some are obviously nervous, fiddling with the booklets and picking at their fingernails.
Their leader paces in front, shows videos and gives a sermon to inspire confidence and hope. They can do this, he tells them.
Some make this look easy, but it’s more challenging than you think, he warns.
Artificially inseminating cows is an experience-driven animal, Dave Watt says. But the more you do it, the better you’ll get, he reassures.
Patience. Practice. Persistence.
That’s all it takes.
* * *
Ella Shrock knows she can do this. COBA offers this class and others learn the technique. So can I, she thinks.
With her dark hair pulled back into a tight ponytail, she gets right to business. It’s time to learn.
She’s heard it a million times: Why on earth would a girl want to learn to inseminate? But she counters that: Why wouldn’t a girl want to learn?
She’s also got a personal stake in this class. Her family has developed a particular cow bloodline for almost 30 years. It’s important to her to keep those genetics going. But the family herd was recently downsized, and most of her cows were hauled to the sale barn.
In a panic, she went to the auction and bought them back.
At 20, she’s adamant about building her own herd, about being a dairywoman. Those seven Brown Swiss and a Holstein heifer will be her foundation. One day, she hopes to have 40 milkers.
She wants to be the boss, the manager, the one who will run her herd. Part of those duties will be picking the best bull semen she can afford and artificially inseminating her stock.
She’ll do it all herself.
* * *
Graduates from Watt’s school are required to have been through 12 cows; not just have their hand inside, but actually palpated, or felt, and gotten through each cow’s cervix with the breeding gun.
In the three days they’re in his school, they’ll do it, he says.
In the meantime they crowd into the classroom – the livestock auction barn’s sale ring – to learn about fornices and infindibulums and isthmuses and caruncles.
A video teaches anatomy and physiology of a cow, illustrating the parts of the reproductive tract.
They nod when they understand. They lean forward to get a closer look when they don’t.
Watch closely, Watt warns. Ninety percent of this job is visualization. It’s not like castration or dehorning or milking. You won’t see what you’re doing.
Close your eyes if you have to once you’re behind the cow, Watt says, but always visualize where you are.
* * *
Each student in this pseudo-classroom has a reason to be here.
Jim Balzer has used A.I. for years in his herd of 25 Simmentals, but has always relied on a technician to do it. Now he wants to do the job himself.
Jay Esbenshade, Don Shearer and Lori VanMeter have watched technicians do a job they feel like they can and should do, too.
Jim Frazier took this course four years ago but didn’t practice afterward. He’s brushing up his skills before spring breeding rolls around.
For others, like Nelson Hoover and Rebecca Brown and Mason Kisamore, it’s all new.
Hoover grew up surrounded by hogs on a southeastern Pennsylvania farm and just married into a Columbiana-area dairy family. His father-in-law said he could use the help if Nelson was willing to “learn” cows. This is his chance.
Brown, at 16, is the youngest in the group and the student with the longest commute. She’s got six Shorthorn heifers at home on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. It’s what her dad, Ken, says is a single 4-H beef breeding project gone out of control. It’s worth the drive, more than an hour in the car, to bring his daughter here to learn.
She wants a career in embryo transfer, but better start with the basics, she figures. Artificial insemination fits the bill.
Kisamore, at 21, helps his father manage a herd of crossbred beef cows on the family’s farm. They’ve got “too many to feed and not enough to make any money.” But can Mason put his touch on the herd, using A.I. to make the animals perform better and make him some money?
Dave Watt will give each a start.
* * *
The video is over and the students are anxious to get their hands dirty. But it’s not time to practice on the cows.
Watt covers a 6-foot table with trash bags and unpacks the contents of a cooler. Inside he’s got at least 10 real reproductive tracts he freezes between schools.
He plops them on the table for some first-hand practice. Curiosity takes over. So that’s what it really looks like, they think. It’s nothing like the poster they just studied.
Each student claims a tract, grabs a breeding gun and follows Watt’s instructions.
Pretend your left hand is inside the rectum. Run it over the top of the tract, feeling the tip of your gun with your left fingertips as you guide it toward the cervix.
Try to stay out of the ditch, the pocket on either side of the cervix called the fornix. It’ll mislead you, Watt says. It might take a few tries to get the gun in the right place.
You’ll know you’re knocking on the front door when you feel the gristly, gravelly cervix. Watt calls it a hot dog, a dill pickle, the primary landlord for the task at hand.
Grasp the cervix and gently guide it over the gun. It’s all in the wrist. Pushin’, pokin’, wishin’ and hopin’ won’t get it done for you, Watt says.
You’re through the cervix when the gun slides in and out easily. But don’t get too carried away. The uterine horns are much more delicate than the cervix. You can cut them with the gun if you’re careless, Watt warns.
Brows are furrowed and lips are bitten, but everyone gets through the samples on the tabletop.
Watt makes it harder. The tracts are jumbled, twisted and turned and scrunched, more like they’ll be inside a live cow. He cuts another trash bag and lays it over the table. A layer between the cow’s vagina and rectum is only as thick as a trash bag. This is almost like the real thing.
Now do it just by touch. No peeking allowed.
It’s harder. Not everyone does so well.
* * *
Night One was a long one. Some didn’t get home until late and they were too tired to make sure all their chores or homework were done.
But the long hours and grueling task didn’t turn anyone off. They returned for another night of learning.
On Night Two, nearly everyone wears bib overalls and thick chore jackets. Underneath, there are just T-shirts.
Yesterday made them tough. They learned, when they had to strip their coats and flannels, that these evenings can be far too chilly to wear T-shirts, but sleeves don’t work so well for this job.
Everyone looks tattered and splattered. Coats and overalls don’t match, and leather boots are cracked and caked in manure. Everyone here is comfortable now.
The students arrive early to chat, to discuss their hardships from Night One. While Mason and Ella were in and out of each practice cow without many issues, others like Jim Balzer and Lori struggled. Maybe they were nervous about hurting the cow, or couldn’t get the technique just right.
But there’s a new group of cows in the chutes tonight, and everyone starts over.
* * *
Watt tells of his own flubs to loosen up the crowd.
One time, shortly after he started breeding cows for COBA 16 years ago, he stuffed two loaded guns into his shirt and headed for the herd. Back at his breeder’s kit, he realized he’d just bred a 92-point Blackstar cow – a Holstein – to a Jersey bull.
Did she catch?, demands a wide-eyed Jim Balzer.
Watt admits with a chuckle that the little calf was born with a brown stripe. Their eyes get big and the group chuckles together, Watt included.
The mistake is laughable now, but it wasn’t then. His embarrassment puts his students at ease.
* * *
In the classroom on Night Two there’s another teacher. District sales manager Jim Ray casually talks about the principles behind liquid nitrogen and semen tanks, mentioning goblets and canes and frost lines and exposure. They say he’s probably forgotten more about the tanks than most people will ever know.
He schools each student in the proper way to pull straws, thaw semen, maintain a tank. They’re the first steps in becoming a good breeder.
Watt teaches them how to read the color codes on the side of the straw that identify the bull and his breed: Holsteins are green, Jerseys are red, and Angus, gray.
There’s no safer place in the world for that semen than in a cow’s uterus, so let’s get it there, Watt says.
Use a paper towel to stroke the metal gun to warm it, he says. To test its warmth, lay the gun against your cheek. You’ll know when it’s too cool or too hot.
Load the straw, cotton end down, and snip off just enough so you’re not losing any semen. Add a protective plastic sheath, and tighten the gun’s doughnut around the base.
Keep the gun warm as you go toward the herd. Stuff it down your shirt or pant leg to keep it warm, Watt suggests.
See your cow in heat. Catch your cow. Pick your straw. Load your gun. Get the job done.
* * *
In the practice pit, the students learn when they’re standing behind a cow, it’s a good idea to keep their mouths shut.
They’re gloved to their shoulders and carry handfuls of lube toward the cows’ back ends. The left arm goes in and cleans up. It’s an awkward sensation, one none of them have ever experienced.
Nelson and Mason turn their heads away. Still, they can’t stay clean. Manure explodes toward their eyelids, their lips, the fence behind them. They just laugh.
Anxiety reigns when some of the cows clamp down. Watt walks the students through a massage technique to push their forearms inside. Other cows get roach-backed and blow up their rectums like 6-inch stovepipes.
There are giggles and cow farts and smiles that say, Wait ’til my friends hear about this.
* * *
Jim Balzer wants to do this “real bad,” he says. But he struggles, his forehead wrinkled and his arm sore after just a few attempts. He says he hopes his cows aren’t like these, the worn and weary sale-barn ones he’s practicing on tonight.
He hooks his left arm down over a tall Holstein’s pelvis and into oblivion. Flat palmed, his arm drops off into an open space, and he hasn’t found what he’s searching for.
But it’s all got to be here. It has to be. This cow has the plumbing.
The tough part is finding it.
He goes against his teacher’s advice and pulls his left arm back. He’ll breathe for a moment and try it again.
Try, try, he thinks. You want to do this. You can do this.
He throws the cow’s tail over his shoulder and goes in for another try. This time, he finds the cervix. A few wiggles of his wrist and he’s got the gun through, ready to get the job done.
A smile erupts. He can do this.
(Reporter Andrea Myers welcomes reader feedback by phone at 1-800-837-3419, ext. 22, or by e-mail at email@example.com.)
Cast of characters
* Dave Watt, COBA reproductive specialist and course instructor
* Jim Ray, COBA district sales manager
* Jim Balzer, Newton Falls, Ohio; raises Simmental cattle
* Rebecca Brown, Clinton, Pa.; wants to become an A.I. technician or have a career in embryo transfer
* Ken Brown , Clinton, Pa.; Rebecca’s father and chauffeur
* Jay Esbenshade, Salem, Ohio; Witmer Farms employee
* Jim Frazier , Southington, Ohio; retired biology teacher
* Nelson Hoover, Columbiana, Ohio; Philip Witmer farm employee
* Mason Kisamore, Mogadore, Ohio; works on family’s beef farm
* Don Shearer, East Canton, Ohio; owns a small cow herd
* Ella Shrock , Middlefield, Ohio; owns eight dairy cattle
* Lori VanMeter, Minerva, Ohio; works on family’s dairy farm