There aren’t many cows that could be led into a room and never move an inch while being repeatedly artificially inseminated by a group of farmers wanting to learn more about DIY AI. But Betsy did – and as one of the group I have to say it’s amazing what you can learn when faced with a cow’s backend creatively crafted from latex.
Before all this goes too far I had better come clean. The cow in question – Betsy – is basically only a cow in part. Betsy is the name that’s been given to a prosthetic version of a cow’s reproductive organs – both internal and external – and she’s guaranteed to enable speedier and more efficient mastering of DIY AI techniques by farmers.
Keen for its farmer suppliers to use high ranking beef and dairy sires through DIY AI, Asda – now running its Beeflink and Dairylink schemes to source beef and milk – teamed up with Cogent to stage an AI training event using Betsy at Cogent’s bull stud near Chester.
Developed in Australia, Betsy was making her UK debut at Cogent which now owns the UK marketing rights to this training aid. Made up of an aluminium frame carrying a latex vulva and anus, there is also a pelvic bone, cervix, uterine tract and horns.
I wasn’t the only member of the group who’d never AI’d a cow before but there’s no doubt that taking a maiden voyage of discovery with Betsy proved far less daunting than I – and others – expected.
It’s amazing how the mind becomes absorbed in an activity and obscures reality. This was certainly like the real thing. I was faced with was a rubberised external and internal reproductive system – including anus and vulva – sitting at cow height perched on a wheeled-trolley.
But once you slip on the glove, lubricate the hand and prepare for the first part of the insemination procedure, you quickly forget this is merely bits of latex on a trolley.
But Betsy is all cow. Having moved my left arm deep into her, the AI rod was passed to me. Unfortunately I wasn’t cool enough to have it gripped in between my teeth. I fed the rod slowly into the vagina and on to the cervix.
Although your trainer can see where your hands are and can monitor what’s going on to give you valuable guidance, you don’t have sight of what your hands are doing. Guiding the rod into the lower part of the cervix to locate the precise location before insemination was tricky at first, but at the second attempt the route seemed more familiar. If you ever played pinning the tail on the donkey as a child then learning to AI with Betsy is almost the adult version.
Cogent’s head of genetics Hugh Pocock said a prosthetic cow would be far more than a valuable training aid for newcomers to DIY AI. “It’ll be useful for those wanting to refresh their skills. But unlike learning on a cull cow, mastering AI techniques on Betsy means it’s easy for the instructor to see where trainees are going wrong.
“One of the most common faults is for semen to be put too far into the cervix and ending up with it in one of the horns of the uterus – using this training aid enables farmers to learn how they can avoid that happening.”
According to Stewart Boothman, Cogent’s operations manager, locating the cervix is the biggest problem for newcomers to DIY AI although many also find it difficult to thread the rod through the body of the cervix.
“Many farmers can get the rod to the mouth of the cervix but not beyond it – and that’s something they need to do to ensure semen is placed in the small area in the mid-body of the cervix before it splits into the two uterine horns.
“This is a particular problem encountered with the narrow cervix of maiden heifers at 13-14-months-old,” he added.
Mr Boothman says farmers have to master AI skills to be able to cope with the physical internal differences between individual animals. “Some cows can have scar tissue, may be narrow or have an awkwardly shaped cervix. Sometimes a cow – say after six or seven calves – can have a large cervix which can be equally difficult to navigate. So practicing on this type of model is hugely beneficial to help farmers learn how to can get semen into the latter part of the body of the cervix.”
Improving conception rates
Staffordshire dairy farmer Andrew Gillman from Tamworth has never AI’d cows before, but wants to improve conception rates and believes undertaking his own AI will help.
“We normally use a contractor for our AI work, but we’ve just started to use pedometers to improve heat detection and feel that taking on the AI myself would give us good conception rates more consistently.
“Although you’ve got to put your skills to the test on real animals at some point, being able to start the learning process on something that’s so realistic is a big advantage,” said Mr Gillman who supplies milk from his 120-cow herd to Asda.
Farmers Weekly’s Young Farmer of the Year and Cogent beef consultant Phil Halhead said Betsy would be a valuable training aid for beef producers as well as dairy farmers.
“It’s as good as the real thing for learning purposes and for those who don’t inseminate many cows it can be used as part of a refresher course to help maintain a high standard of AI.”