Farm Horizons, February 2001

Joe Radtke: Artificial insemination helps farmers improve herds

By Patrice Salmon

When I first heard I would be assigned to write about farm related topics, all I could think of was how little I knew about farming.

Today, which I will remember as "Super Bull Sunday," opposed to the day dedicated to food and football, was my first time on a farm.

I had tried for two weeks to contact Joe Radtke of Lester Prairie, only to find that he's gone a lot.

When we finally spoke on the phone, my response to his profession was typical.

"I breed cows. I artificially inseminate dairy cows," said Joe.

I didn't talk to Joe for a few days, and in that time, I came to all sorts of inaccurate conclusions about animal breeding.

Since then I have learned that artificial insemination (AI) has been practiced for years, and with very good results.

The farmers in this area have used AI for about 30 years, said Radtke. Most people don't want to keep a bull anymore, he continued.

Through AI, farmers are able to control their herd, breeding their cows for the desirable traits, such as good feet and legs, high and tight udders, and less beefiness.

Production and longevity are the two most common reasons for AI, according to Radtke.

"I'll walk into a barn, find the cow I'm to artificially inseminate, and if the cow has less than ideal feet, I'll pick the semen from a bull with good feet," explained Radtke.

The same premise works for other traits as well, such as milk production. AI is a way to breed the good traits into the herd.

This helps extend the longevity of the cow's life also. If the cows have udders which hang extremely low to the ground, there is more chance the cow will step on the teats, which could lead to infection.

So, if the cow is bred with semen from a line of cows with nice high and tight udders, this cow's heifer will hopefully have better udders, he explained.

He also equated having a bull for breeding purposes to putting all your eggs in one basket: "You invest in a bull, the bull is breeding with the entire herd, but what if the bull turns out to be a dud? The whole herd is affected."

With AI, he has 70 different choices of frozen bull semen to use. Once he gets to the barn, to the cow he's going to inseminate, he can pick which semen will best suit the cow.

Radtke has been in the AI business for 20 years. He started out with a company named Minnesota Valley Breeders, which underwent a couple mergers and is now Genex.

Genex is located in Shawno, Wisc. and that's where the bull herd is kept. A semi truck comes to the area once a month to deliver all the supplies, including the frozen semen of 70 bulls, stored in a special tank.

The semen is obtained from the bulls, diluted, a count is performed, and once it is determined that the sample meets the company's guideline for count and activity, it is put in vials called "straws," and frozen.

It was hard for me to find Joe at home, because he's on the road a lot, breeding cows. He started out in the Howard Lake area, and his territory has grown to include Watertown to Hutchinson.

He typically performs AI on 18 to 20 cows a day.

"When I first started, I would go down the road and there would be one farm right after another. I could make four or five stops in an hour," Radtke said. "Now, I drive, sometimes, 20 miles between stops."

"There are barns that look like they should have cows in them, but there just aren't as many farms with animals anymore," he said.

According to a recent article in the StarTribune, Minnesota has lost half of its dairy farms - 7,660 - in the past decade.

The state Department of Agriculture reports that an average of 50 dairy farms have gone out of business each month in the past three years.

With times what they are, and dairy farms being harder to maintain, AI seems like a way to help maintain the best dairy herd possible.

"There have been dramatic changes in farming in the last five years, and there are even more to come," said Radtke.

AI has had a huge impact on the improvement of the Holstein breed.

Since perfection of the semen freezing process in the late 1940s, AI has allowed the use of superior, proven bulls by Holstein breeders across the country.

Today, AI accounts for 85 percent of all Holstein births, according to the Holstein Association USA.

In the late 1960s, the AI industry, the Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA), and breed organizations such as the Holstein Association, worked together to develop genetic tools dairy producers could use to breed their cattle for improvement.

They used type and production information and research data from universities to develop measures Holstein breeders now use to evaluate bulls and select sires according to their needs.

AI is not just being used locally and in the United States, but it is also being used around the world. Holstein semen is currently being exported to more than 50 countries and is being used to improve foreign food supplies and dairy producer income.

With all these years of experience, Radtke is often given the choice of what semen to use to inseminate the cows.

"A lot of farmers know me after all the years I've worked with them, they just leave the decision up to me," he said.

This was the case when I went with Joe to see just what the procedure was.

We arrived at the farm of Harlan Stender near New Germany, and we went right to the barn. Joe had obviously been here before.

Inside was a large silver bulk tank, and the air smelled of a combination of cow manure and bleach.

Joe was over at a sink running water, and I saw that he had what looked like a coffee travel mug in his hand.

He informed me that it was a thermos, which now held water at 95 degrees, according to the temperature gauge on top. He would put the straw of semen into the container to thaw before inseminating the cow.

Detailed records are kept in a log book located near the door. He explained that his identification number was indicated, along with which cow he was here for, and he would record the identification number of the bull whose semen he would use.

A wooden stick hung over the cow in heat. AI is a time-dependent activity. Part of the problem I had with contacting Joe was that when a cow is in heat, Joe only has a certain amount of time to perform his job.

If a cow went into heat in the evening, he would go to the farm in the morning. If a cow was observed to be in heat in the morning, he would be called to go that afternoon.

We went over by the cow, one of about 70 in the barn, and in a relaxed manner, he explained that this cow was on the large size, so he would use semen to breed toward one with a smaller, less bulky frame.

The semen would be injected into the cow using a long, thin, metal instrument. He donned a long plastic glove, which in a few seconds I would be glad to see fit to well over his elbow.

He proceeded to clean out the cow, emptying her of all solid waste. The cow could not be allowed to relieve herself while being inseminated, because the semen could not get contaminated.

The cow just stood there, as calm as Joe was, while he inserted the metal tube.

It is not a job that everyone could do, and not one for anyone on the squeamish side. I was glad for my laboratory background (not many things are too gross for me to handle).

When he was done, he recorded all the necessary information in the log book, explained a few more things, hosed off his boots, and we were done.

We had finished just in time to leave before the evening milking. I was happy to meet the farmer whose cow Joe serviced.

On the way home, we talked about what animal breeding is like.

"After working with the farmers for as many years as I have, you're sort of part of the family. They're all such friendly people," he said.

"We're really helping the farmer through AI. We're helping to have good-looking, good-producing cows," he concluded.

Although not for everyone, he assured me that it was a good way to earn a living. For someone who wants to work with cattle, work independently, and be their own boss, it's a good job.

There's some schooling involved to become an AI technician, and it is a seven-day a week job, but it has worked out well for Joe Radtke. He was even able to coach basketball for three years, and there are back-up technicians available (so that there are days off).

Joe sure earned my respect, and I don't think I'll ever look at a cow quite the same.

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