Meet the All Blacks of bovine insemination. An elite squad of 36 “fine young men” are all tagged and numbered – ready to keep our dairy industry in stock.
In fact, 4.6 million inseminations are expected nationally through this breeding programme that generates roughly $350 million in milk production a year.
New Zealand would likely be in a state of emergency without them, and Auckland folks would miss out on their lattes, artificial breeding manager David Hale says.
Breeding season is already ramping up with more than 1300 seasonal staff scattered across the country, busy inseminating cows.
Hale, recently appointed national breeding manager for Livestock Improvement Corporation (LIC) is accountable to 10,500 shareholders – Kiwi dairy farmers – and is on the phone from Whakatane as he makes his way from Northland to Invercargill to get a “hands-on” experience of the national breeding programme.
There is a stack of science involved, a DNA map which stretches back more than 100 years, plus a sense of humour, he says.
“We have to have a sense of humour; we talk about sperm cells and semen in everyday conversion.”
Math is involved, with addition, subtraction, division and multiplication helping determine who exactly the fine young men are.
It all sounds a little complex, so I ask Hale to put it in layman terms.
“The easiest way to describe it is when our bulls are aged one, we generate 80 daughters from each of them, and four years later their daughters get herd tested.
“We look at the girls’ test results, different breeding values including protein, fat, live weight, residual survival, fertility and bacteria in the milk.
“We call it breeding worth, and the top 20 per cent of the 180 – 36 boys – are used for breeding nationally; so it is the girls who tell us how good the boys are.”
LIC has New Zealand herd records, digital and hard copy, which go back more than 100 years, Hale says. It helps combat inbreeding.
“Technicians have data on hand, and each cow has a unique id with information that goes back three generations.
“The software will indicate whether there is any inbreeding. We don’t have any stock with two heads,” he jokes.
From September until December 24, about 100,000 straws of bull sperm are dispatched and delivered each day, Hale says.
“It’s important to keep it at a constant temperature.”
The breeding programme is unique to New Zealand and was first developed by Dr Patrick Shannon more than 60 years ago, Hale says.
“He worked for LIC nearly all his life; he was the one who decided that we could use fresh semen to inseminate cows instead of freezing it.
“When we collect semen from a bull, we generate 500 to 700 straws, and we dilute the ejaculate.
“Dr Patrick was a key part of moving from frozen to fresh sperm.”
The programme evolved and between 3000 and 7000 straws can now be made from one ejaculate.
Fresh semen straws are dispatched to a team of technicians all over the country, for insemination into cows as early as the same afternoon following collection.
The programme is expanding, he says.
“It’s pretty much tailor-made for New Zealand based on a grass-fed system.
“We export to other countries who are trying to emulate our system, including Argentina, Brazil and Chile.
“We are establishing closer links with those countries and have Kiwis who own and run dairy operations in those countries.”
Hale, from a sheep and beef background, says he sees no negative impacts from dairying in New Zealand.
“We can always do things better as the world changes and technology grows.