The Lonesome Call of the Animal Fluffer: Everything you always wanted to know about cattle insemination but were afraid to askJune 15, 2009
by Marissa Guggiana
illustration by Elizabeth Zechel
This article originally appeared in Meatpaper Issue Eight.
AS WITH EVERY LOVE STORY, there are parallel narratives at work. The first is that of the bull. He is the 1% cream resting majestically atop the 99% crop. His ancestors were selected primarily for their God-given efficiency at turning grass and grains into delicious hamburger patties. Out of the top 1% of their descendents, 25% will become proven sires. Their sperm will go forth into the world and multiply, creating an awe-inspiring number of “progeny on the ground.”
It should come as no surprise to any of us that the mating rituals of cattle have moved far from the story of cow meets bull. We all know the barnyard is no longer a pastoral ark. The basic premise of populating a farm has moved from having one of everything a family might need to having as many as possible of one thing. Breeding has become as specialized as the farm itself.
I was born the same year as the first test tube baby, and so the concept of insemination through technological intermediaries feels natural to me. The notion of sperm gathering on the farm, however, left my mind a blinking blank. What enticements, what contraptions, what setting put a bull’s amorous machinery in motion?
Select Sires, in Plain City, Ohio, is on a mission to provide highly fertile semen to the livestock breeders of America. Mel DeJarnette, the Reproduction Specialist, explained to me the expertise that goes into each molecule of sperm. The life of the meaty Don Juan, he says, is a series of entrances and exits from the Collection Arena at Selection Sires. The Collection Arena is built in a manner akin to the saloon whorehouses of the spaghetti western — it’s a large building that has been partitioned into smaller pens. The separation is just enough to allow each bull to focus on its own experience but not enough to mute the moaning and boot-jangling in the pen next door.
When Ferdinand is ushered in by the Handler, he sees before him a “teaser bull” — a steer that has generally been purchased from the FFA at a county fair for just this purpose. The Handler then begins the intimate work of creating the most erotically charged situation possible between the two bulls. Apparently this isn’t terribly difficult. Over time, some bulls form a liking for certain corners of the arena, certain pens, certain “teaser bulls,” or a specific Handler’s timing.
The Select Sires method of maximizing their own “labor invested per unit of semen” is known as the Triple Mount. The Handler allows Ferdinand to mount the teaser bull twice, and twice rips the bull away right before his moment of exaltation. Beef cattle are generally less libidinous than dairy cattle, but even the most stoic steer is worked up into a frenzy by the third mount.
At this point the Collector is summoned from his rounds through the beefy bacchanal of the Collection Arena, Artificial Vagina in hand. The Artificial Vagina is a tube that is hard enough for the Collector to manipulate. Inside, however, is another tube of sterile, supple, and, dare I say, sexy plastic. Between those tubes is warm water to simulate body temperature and the malleability of a Real Vagina.
The Collector guides the aroused Ferdinand’s manhood into this faux mound of Venus, and the steer is finally allowed to relinquish his future progeny fluid.
Meanwhile, on the other half of this affair, waits a cow. A very, very sexually frustrated cow. Select Sires has developed another procedure — one that they refer to as their Hormonal Synchronization Program. When a rancher orders semen, he can leave the ebbs and flows of nature by the wayside and incite every cow on his ranch into choreographed heat just as the package is delivered.
It should come as no surprise to any of us that the mating rituals of cattle have moved far from the story of cow meets bull.
It’s just good business: Timing is the difference between getting 60% of your cows knocked up versus 70%. The semen arrives in 5-inch-long plastic straws frozen in liquid nitrogen, ready to be thawed in a water bath and loaded into the insemination gun or plunger. Each straw is chock full of sperm that has been tested for quality, motility, abnormalities, lucasites, infection, concentration, and volume.
The straws are also full of extenders, often milk-based, which means that Ferdinand’s lovemaking session in the Collection Arena can fill up to 5,000 insemination guns. The results? Three thousand to 3,500 calf embryos whose cells will shortly be dividing, and dividing, and dividing again. Ah, l’amour.
MARISSA GUGGIANA is the President of Sonoma Direct Sustainable Meats and a co-founder of Secret Eating Society. When she is not hanging out with taxidermists and carcasses, you can find her writing about taxidermists and carcasses.
ELIZABETH ZECHEL is the author and illustrator of the children’s book, Is There a Mouse in the Baby’s Room? She lives and works in Brooklyn.