Veering off SH1’s cross-country jaunt from Balclutha to Gore, the roads quickly become a criss-cross maze of gravel roads laid on the green, rural idyll that is South Otago.
Here, cows stand grazing grass or lie chewing their cud against a backdrop of rolling hills, macrocarpa hedges and blue sky studded with cotton ball clouds. It is the tourism and dairying industries’ most glowing word pictures come to life; the multibillion dollar business of earning all-important export dollars being conducted one peaceful, picturesque mouthful at a time.
But the purpose of this expedition to dairying’s ground zero is to peek at the back end of the business, literally. You won’t see many postcards images taken from this angle.
For a townie, walking into a milking-shed-turned-insemination-facility in Waiwera South, 20km west of Balclutha, is an immediate sensory overload. The sight and smell of ordure, everywhere. The source of all that excrement; large animals, each in their allotted stalls. The loud clank and whirr as the motorised rotary turntable takes the cows through 360-degrees, passing hind-end foremost across a raised platform where two people stand in overalls, gumboots and shoulder length, fingered, pink, plastic gloves. And, most confronting of all, those two manure-spattered individuals with their arms up cows’ bums, inserting long, thin metal tubes into the hole below.
These two people are artificial breeding (AB) technicians. They are an increasingly important element in this country’s second largest export earner, dairy.
Each year, farmers have to replace up to 40% of their cows, mostly because of health problems. So, breeding replacement stock is important.
Also, there is no dairy industry without pregnancy. Cows need to have calves to produce milk.
So, artificial insemination is an ever-more popular way of ensuring each cow plays its part and pays its way.
The senior of these two AB technicians is Paul Ashley, a prison officer who takes eight weeks off work each year to artificially inseminate thousands of cows throughout South Otago.
His off-sider is Mosgiel vet technician Genevieve Devereux, who is on a six-week apprenticeship getting the low-down on bovine artificial breeding.
Both are armed with a cluster of pistolets shoved into gumboots for ease of access.
Each pistolet is loaded with a cartridge of bull semen.
The outside of the glove is lubed with what looks like a vast quantity of the veterinary equivalent of K-Y Jelly and then the technician gets down to business.But first, a public service announcement: For those who want or need to know the ins and outs, as it were, keeping reading. For those of a less gynaecological disposition, jump down to the start of the next passage.
“We go into the rectum.”
Ashley is giving a running commentary.
“It’s like reading braille. You look with your fingers.”
“Then I insert the pistolet [into the vagina]. I feel through the rectum wall to pick up the cervix and then I feed the cervix on to the pistolet.
“You check with your index finger that it hasn’t gone too far. Then you inject the semen and pull it out.
“I always check the end of my pistolet to make sure there is no blood on there.”
It seems like a strange thing for a prison officer to be spending his holiday doing. But there is a history to this; and a couple of compelling reasons.
Ashley grew up in Taranaki.
In 1983, after leaving the Royal New Zealand Navy, he returned to farming. The farmer who employed Ashley sent him off to the Horotiu freezing works for two weeks’ practice on cull cows before setting him to work as an on-farm artificial inseminator.
Later, after an accident almost took off Ashley’s leg and forced him to sell his cows, he was contracted to inseminate the Waikeria Prison farm herd, in the Waikato.
He transitioned to work as a regular Department of Corrections prison officer.
Then, when the Otago Corrections Facility opened a decade ago, Ashley shifted south with his late-wife, Bev, to Milton.
A year later, he was back to taking annual leave during the Spring to Christmas cow mating season, working for the Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) as a contract AB technician.
It takes 10,000 hours of dedicated practice to master a skill. So, artificial insemination is truly an area of expertise for Ashley now.
He can get through a cow a minute, up to 350 cows a day across several farms, about 10,000 cows per season. Having acquired that level of skill, even though he is a principal corrections officer, he likes to keep his hand in.
But, surely, fishing or golf or … anything is better than spending your holidays with your arm up several thousand cows’ rear ends. Not true, Ashley says.
“I find I totally de-stress. I get fit. I’ve lost nine kilos in five weeks.”
Comparing prison work with artificial insemination, he says both have challenges but only one set of clients does not answer back or hurl abuse.
“I go back totally relaxed.”
Ashley’s happy place, evidently, is elbow deep in a cow. The cow, on the other hand, is probably trying to think about its happy place.
Finished with the first shed of the day, Ashley, Devereux and Ashley’s assistant, Donna Williams, are soon in their car heading towards the next waiting farmer and his cows.
Ashley is responsible for 10 dairy farms in the district. Most days, work begins at 7am. There are a couple of hours off in the middle of the day, and then work carries on until the job is done. Sometimes, early in the season, that can be as late as 8pm.
At the start of the season, all the cows get a cartridge, each loaded with millions of eager sperm.
And this is no lucky dip. The farmer can specify the breed, length of gestation and even traits such as milkability and temperament.
As a parting gift, inseminated cows have their hindquarters daubed with spray paint.
At the end of their 21-day cycle, if the paint is still bright and the cow is lying down contentedly in the paddock, then she is probably “in calf”.
If she is standing, and other cows have rubbed paint off with their attempts to mount her, she is brought back to the shed for a second round of bovine IVF.
When Ashley began as an AB technician, farmers often put a bull in with freshly, artificially inseminated cows.
“I was told, ‘Son, it’s a race between you and the bull’,” he recalls.
Back then, semen was mixed with egg yolk to keep it alive and stored in glass test tubes.
Technicians would draw each dose up into a glass papette using a syringe and then inseminate the cow.In those days, technicians did not get any in-field training with an experienced inseminator.
Once, early on, a Jersey cow tightened its sphincter enough to hold Ashley fast. Unable to free his arm from the wrong end of the beast, he thought he was going to have to call the vet. A lot of lube, however, eventually did the trick.
Today, by comparison, the training is more thorough and the technology means the hit rate is much higher.
This second farm of the day no longer uses bulls.That’s not yet the norm. But Ashley predicts that one day all New Zealand dairy farm breeding will be done artificially.
“Because of the cost of bulls, [and] the hassle … that goes with them.”
Artificial breeding companies remove that hassle by letting bulls of proven pedigree in with “teaser” cows in heat and then getting a fearless and nimble technician armed with a sheath-like artificial vagina to intervene at the critical moment.
The collected, quality-tested and processed semen can be in a cartridge on the end of an AB technician’s pistolet as soon as the same day.
Does Ashley think he is robbing cows and bulls of the opportunity to do what comes naturally?
No, he’s never thought of it that way, he says.
And it is probably easier on the cow, compared with having a bull put over them, he says.
Dr Mike King is not so sure.
Asked whether, if he was a cow, he would prefer a hand up his bum or being ridden by a bull, the animal ethics researcher opted for the bull.
Dr King, who works at the University of Otago bioethics centre, says there is no strong evidence that the hand of a well-trained inseminator causes stress or pain. But the procedure is likely to be uncomfortable for the cow, he says.
And both bull and cow are probably missing out on some pleasure.
We do not know for sure that bull-cow sex is enjoyable, King says, “but the weight of evidence is in favour of humans not being the only animals for whom sex is pleasurable”.
“If it’s not, then I’m still going for the bull, but only to avoid the likely uncomfortable feeling of rectal palpation,” he concludes.
Mastery. De-stressing. And pay. That is another compelling reason.
“It’s bloody hard work” and they are recompensed appropriately, Ashley says.
He gets a set amount per cow. Paying a third in tax, he can still clear $25,000 in the eight-week season.
Despite that, and probably because it is strenuous work in literally shitty conditions, there is a shortage of AB technicians.
This season, in Otago and Southland, they are about 16 technicians short of a full roster, he says.
Fortunately, Ashley likes to pass on his knowledge, so he takes on a trainee each season.
“I’ve always got an eye on my apprentice, just to make sure he or she is going right,” he says and then adds, referring to Devereux, “Don’t let it go to her head, she’s probably the best apprentice I’ve had in a few years”.
It is now late in the morning. In the third and final shed only 16 cows are waiting, testament to the inseminators’ proficiency.
This is the real reason why Ashley keeps coming back season after season; to help farmers get their cows in calf and to “improve everyone’s genetics”.
“If I wasn’t doing any good, I wouldn’t have the rapport I have with my clients.”
Ashley is proud of the work he does and the relationship he has with the farmers.
He believes managing people is an overlooked, yet key skill for a good AB technician; a talent he has honed through his prison work.
“I know how to read people and how to approach them,” he says.
“I was [once] put into an area with difficult farmers. I turned that area around in a season.
“We’re always taught ‘a win-win situation’, so you use that tool to get what you need.”
The other critical quality, Ashley says, is self-belief.
This is a surprise. Reaching into an unsuspecting cow is not often seen as requiring any special mental fortitude.
“If you start doubting yourself, you won’t be able to do it,” Ashley explains.
For example, Devereux started well and then went into “a bit of a dip”.
“She was questioning herself. But as soon as I got her past that dip, she started to get better and better.
“It’s getting past that mental block, ‘Am I doing it right? Have I got it in the right place?’ It’s about confidence.”
This shed is more than just the final one of the morning. For Ashley, it is also the final one of the year.
Tomorrow, he will be in a hospital operating theatre getting a full knee replacement on the leg he almost lost. It will put him out of commission for the rest of the season.
But he promises to be back, pulling on a new glove, for a few more seasons yet.