Wednesday, December 6, 2023

A sexy industry

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A loyal seasonal workforce sweeps the country every year, pushing the dairy industry’s artificial breeding logistics to the limit. Tim Fulton delves into semen processing and artificial insemination.
Reading Time: 4 minutes

Being an artificial breeding technician is an unusual job but many seasonal recruits just keep coming back year after year, LIC’s national artificial breeding manager Dave Hale says.

LIC employs about 1400 seasonal AB staff a year, joining a comparatively tiny permanent staff of just 57.

About 800 of the seasonal crew are AB technicians, with the remaining 600 or so in office jobs, labs, warehouses, courier drivers or directly assisting the techs on farms.

“It’s like rolling out an army actually. You’ve got to recruit and train then support them once they’re in the field,” Hale says.

Hale has been with LIC for 14 years including 10 years managing the co-op’s bull and dairy farms.

The farms work hand in hand with the AB operations as a source of the semen. 

Hale’s team processes, sends, delivers and perform the semen and does about 4.6 million inseminations each spring.

The process starts with bulls being taken from the paddock to the collection barn. Once the semen is collected it is passed through a window to a lab team, which begins the processing. The finished product leaves the building in straws, in boxes, for delivery by about 90 courier drivers taking it to AB technicians.

Even after 14 years of watching the logistics unfold Hale still marvels at how the company maintains its unique delivery of fresh semen to technicians every three days.

New Zealand’s geography helps make it possible, Hale says.

“I’ve been lucky enough to go around Europe and America to some of the big AB companies and they don’t do that because of their logistical size.

“In NZ a long and skinny country with a changing climate starting from the top of the North Island to the bottom of the South Island plays a big role in why it actually works so well delivering semen every three days to three different areas of the country.”

Last year Mycoplasma bovis forced LIC to make changes to the system of fresh semen processing that had been mostly unchanged for three decades.  

Before the 2018-19 season LIC collected, processed and sent semen the same day so technicians could use it the following day.

That changed last year to prevent delivery of semen that hadn’t been tested negative for M bovis. Semen is now collected from the bulls and PCR-tested for M. bovis. Only once a sample is confirmed negative can straws be sent to the AB techs. 

A PCR test detects whether an M bovis cell is present, whether dead or alive. LIC is the only AB company in the world that PCR tests every semen collection and in two years of testing all results have been clear.

The company has also increased biosecurity on farms since the disease was discovered two years ago.  All LIC staff, including AB technicians, have a revised protocol for entering and leaving farms, including compulsory foot washes. 

LIC aims to train 80-100 technicians every year to replenish the team. Technicians must complete a two-week training course, run at centres around the country between February and May. 

You must achieve 85% in the first week to continue to the second week then 95% in the second week to pass. Graduates spend their first year as an apprentice, working alongside an experienced technician who coaches them along with completing and passing three NZQA unit standards before graduating as a first-year technician where they complete a further year under supervision though they are working on their own. 

Staff turnover in the seasonal workforce is about 20%. Ten technicians this year alone celebrated 25 years on the run and two clocked up 50 years.

“To have 80% of our workforce come back year after year and to work for us as a seasonal employee is an amazing statistic and one we are very proud of,” Hale says.

The team has a variety of backgrounds and 43% are women.

“Thirty years ago just about all our technicians owned farms or were working on farms, sharemilking or working in the dairy industry.

“Today we have firemen, we have policemen, we have city people that take four to six weeks leave without pay to do an AB run.” 

Often the technicians have worked for LIC previously before a change of career but want to stay involved in the industry. The techs are paid piece rates, which means they’re paid for every insemination and can earn good money over a short time. LIC also supplies them with everything they need to do their job.

Hale says techs have to meet certain performance criteria, which are ultimately about successful insemination and getting cows in calf. Insemination is around day one of a cow’s 21-day cycle.

“From an artificial breeding point of view we measure non return rates.

“So, if the cow doesn’t come back for another insemination we assume its in-calf and if they do return we capture that data and measure against technician performance.”

Hale says the technician’s role, including cow-in-calf data, is just part of hitting mating targets.

“Getting cows in calf relies on a lot of good practices on farms. You need good heat detection, the farmer to be presenting cows that are truly on heat, good facilities for the technicians to work in to give them the best opportunity to get cows in calf … these are just some of the main contributing factors to actually getting a cow in calf.”

However, there is pressure on techs to get the job done. Their non-return rates are compared with their peers in the same region.

“So, they’re not compared to the herds that they’re doing. They’re compared against all their fellow technicians to see where the variation is. 

“Our technicians take a great deal of pride in their work. No matter how experienced they are most will feel a sense of nervousness as they approach day 24 from their start date as the non-return rate data starts becoming available. It is monitored daily throughout the season but from this point on all technicians have a valid non return rate for comparison with their peers and with all herds in their group. 

“LIC employs a large team of seasonal staff across its entire operations and service business so we understand the huge value that they provide to our business and farmer shareholders,” Hale says.

“It is about providing a good service from which both the farmer and the AB technician want the same thing – to get cows successfully in-calf.”

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