April 11, 2009

50 years of artificial insemination and herd improvement in New Zealand.

By Clive Dalton & Claire Rumble.

Now a new Google knol - click here to read online.
Originally published by the Auckland Livestock Improvement Association, Private Bag, Hamilton.
ISBN 0-473-00294-9
April 1985
The cover of the book shows Moria Toomath (daughter of the late A.S. Wiley) of the Puhinui Jersey stud on her Koranui farm with a bull calf born in August 1984. Moira named the calf 'Puhinui King James' and he is rather special, because there are eight generations of AI breeding in his pedigree. His ancestry traces back to a foundation cow bought by Sydney Wiley in 1940. The Puhinui stud has been firmly based on AI breeding for 40 years.

Introduction (2009)

By Dr Clive Dalton

In musing over how things have changed in New Zealand dairying over the last 20 years, and the contribution genetics have made to this, I dug out the small book which Claire Rumble and I wrote in 1985 to commemorate “50 years of Artificial Insemination and Herd Improvement in New Zealand”.

At the time, Claire and I were employed by the NZ Ministry of Agriculture & Fisheries. I was a Scientific Liaison Officer at the Ruakura Research Centre (where folk had forgotten AI in New Zealand had started), and Clare was Technical Editor in our MAF Wellington Head Office. We thought it an interesting and important story then that should be recorded for posterity, and nobody else was going to do anything about it.

Claire and I got in contact again in 2009, and after all these years we thought that in these internet days, the material should be made accessible to anyone interested in New Zealand’s agricultural history and especially in dairy cattle breeding.

We can’t remember how many books were printed, but it was not a lot due to Jack Burton’s very small ‘slush fund’! It was not sold, but copies were given away to anyone LIA thought would be interested. It’s amusing now that many people can remember the publication, but few can find their copy. The book rarely turns up in second-hand bookshops.

The words have not been edited or updated. Sad to say, most of the people mentioned in the story have now passed on.

What’s the story about?
Tokoroa dairy farmer, and lifelong servant to the dairy industry, Dudley Lane summed the book up in his foreword.
“The book highlights the initiative and dedication of the scientists, technicians, administrators and farmers who pioneered the introduction of artificial insemination of dairy cattle in New Zealand.”
It’s really a bit of a detective story with the New Zealand dairy cow playing the lead role. New Zealand’s cow population was building up in the early 1900s and somebody must have decided to officially record their milk yield. Obviously farmers wanted to know which were their best cows, so they could breed replacements from them.

The first problem was how to handle all the data collected and from it sort out which were the best cows. It was the dawn of the science of statistics never mind genetics.

But then as the bull was the key to herd improvement, finding the top bulls was the key, and then they hit the wall over how to get more offspring from a bull.

Two popular sires in 1981
The Friesian (right) had more than 150,000 inseminations, and the Jersey more than 125,000.

The pedigree breeders held all the power and the sale of their bulls was the key to genetic improvement. Then the urge to speed up herd improvement made farmers start wondering if this new (and to many very dodgy) process called Artificial Insemination could be of use to get more from their bulls. This is the core of the tale.

AI or AB
This was a serious debate about which term to use, and you have to laugh about it now. New Zealand started with the term AI (Artificial Insemination), were diverted by the UK Milk Marketing Board to call it AB (Artificial Breeding), and then UK changed back to AI and left New Zealand in the lurch with a term that now is only use in NZ and Australia!

History of Herd Improvement
Dairy farming in New Zealand has always been a cooperative business, so this chapter is very important to understand the organisations that had to be set up – and made to work – to get anything going. Electricity was just being introduced to farms, milking machines were coming on stream, and pencil and paper was the means of recording everything. The introduction of the Burroughs ‘adding machines’ by Arthur Ward (a former accountant) for processing cow records was a revolution!

It was the dawn of statistical analysis – and Arthur had to lead the industry into this age. He persuaded Olive Castle to leave her maths teaching job in Wellington and join him. She should have been honoured for her contribution to the dairy industry but never was. Progeny testing, Sire Surveys and Contemporary Comparisons were developed by Olive and were copied world wide. It was a great example of the Kiwi way – of getting science into the paddock.

First steps to AI
Looking back now, this part of the story is mind blowing and you have to wonder if it could be done today with all the bureaucracy. The “NZ Co-op Herd Testing Assoc”, asked the Director General of Agriculture to get on and develop an AI service. Nice and simple – “get on with the job" mate!

The original AI laboratory at Newstead in 1952. The cars (from L to R) are Stan Southcombe's A40, Max Cooper's Morris Minor, and Sel Sheaf's A 90.

Remember what things were like. Rough roads, Model T and Austin cars, no electricity on farms, no idea of how to get semen from a bull on a farm (a pickle jar was used!) and then keeping the semen in a test tube in Tom Blake’s waistcoat pocket till he got to a cow on another farm to insert it into the vagina. The story and what the folk charged with getting the show on the road is amazing looked at from today’s systems.

Back to the beginning
This chapter is about an amazing man – Dr John James, a UK trained vet who came to New Zealand to do research on mastitis at Wallaceville. He sort of got diverted to Ruakura and the rest is history! It’s an amazing bit of history too – of what he achieved, like the invention of the straw to hold semen and the stainless steel insemination gun – 40 years before its time! The only gun left is in an AI museum in Russia!
Dr John James - the driving force behind getting AI working in NZ

Dr James led the research along a difficult and winding path of working out how to preserve sperm, dilute it to get more cows mated from one ejaculate, with the enormous challenge that only New Zealand has – to get all the cows mated over a period of 6 weeks in spring.

John James is generous in his recognition of all the staff at Ruakura and then at Newstead who helped to get the job done.

Semen for sale
One day, which must have been momentous, semen was offered for sale to commercial farmers with a very reasonable guarantee of success. Imagine the responsibility on the heads of all those involved, because if the cow didn’t get in calf, the farmer’s income next year was severely affected by the three-week delay in calving.

Then of course, once the novelty of the technique was accepted, farmers expected that they would be getting the very top bulls in the country, and that each year’s models would be better than last year’s. The pressure went on pedigree breeders which up to now were assumed to have the best stock. This assumption was now being questioned!

How to organise this distribution of semen took some very special people, and they didn’t fail to deliver. However one idea somebody had ‘failed to fly’. It was to send semen from Hamilton to Massey by carrier pigeon – which was in theory faster than the train! A saddler was commissioned to make the leather pouches needed.

AI goes to Northland
Apparently the dairy farmers in Northland had the clear impression that nobody cared much about them, so they got organised and were going to set up their own organisation. They went a fair way along the road and three wonderful stirrers who lived into their 90s made the Dairy Board see their point of view and provide an AI service.

AI made such an impact in Northland that the local management committee got a letter from a ‘Miss” requesting semen, saying she had never married but wished to have a family – ‘preferring Scottish and definitely not Irish blood’. She was available for interview any time. The meeting exploded with members clamouring for more details.

Technicians and training
The star of this chapter, and many would say of AI in New Zealand is Max Cooper (photographed in action below). Max was raised on a Hamilton farm, now with the city at its doorstep and had seen cows being inseminated on the family farm and thought it would an interesting job.

Over a very long career with the NZ Dairy Board, he led the charge of getting AI to work on farms, and to keep getting better results. He became a major trainer around the world. He was always the star turn at the annual Ruakura Open Days when buses taking farmers around the farm always ended at Newstead where Max had a bull primed ready to mount to deliver some future genetics for the industry.

Max told some great stories – all true! He was once accosted by a very nice lady who said she’d pay his wages if he stopped the ‘dirty pracice’ he was involved in. He tried in vain to explain it was a bull’s semen he was using on the cow. Many farmers always let the bull serve the cow before and after insemination and one farmer told Max that at the climax of mating, an electric pulse passed from bull to cow.

Forward into the fifties
The hero of this chapter is Pat Shannon (pictured). The progress which Pat and his colleagues brought about in the 1950s is an applied science classic. Pat is the first to acknowledge the help they got from “serendipity”!

The secret was in the dilution process as when they started they could get 10,000 inseminations from one ejaculate provided it was used within the first and at most the second day after collection. Their work (in 1956) got 150,000 inseminations from an ejaculate – and with massive advantages in keeping quality.

Taking the message to the farmer
This chapter pays tribute to the pioneering farmers whose supported the system set up to revolutionise dairy herd improvement. Herds were increasing slowly in size, the demand for proven bulls was increasing, the market for unproven ‘pedigree’ bulls had collapsed, and their was a storm of ‘plain speaking’ from pioneers like Dr C.P. McMeekan at Ruakura and Alan Candy.

These pioneers formed the NZ Society of Animal Production and the Dairy Board set up the Consultancy Officers’ Service. Things were really on the move. Jeff Stichbury of the Dairy Board drove the consultants, and relished the challenge of getting out in his Austin A40 to confront farmers the length of the land.

Which bulls to use?

This chapter is about the devopment of the ‘Sire Proving Scheme’ which had, and has continued to be the very core of dairy cattle improvement. It’s all about finding the best bulls which are then used as “Premier Sires”.

The process then developed to find the best cows from the extensive database of cow records (one of the biggest in the world) to be the mothers of future Premier Sires. Farmers put these cows up on contracts so any bull calves born were put back into the system to be progeny tested. This process has not changed – its only got bigger and better over the years.

Consolidation in the sixties
This bit of the story is about research to improve the extenders to keep semen viable for longer and the technology of deep freezing was racing ahead.

There’s a lovely (true) story of a farmer who was told to keep some semen in the FRIDGE. In those days semen was kept in glass ampules before plastic straws were invented. By mistake he put it in the FREEZER! It was duly thawed and the cow inseminated to produce a nice calf nine months later. He could claim to have pioneered the process!

The Eighties
By 1984, 70% of New Zealand dairy herds were using AI, and to most farmers, they’d never used anything else, so to them there was nothing ‘artificial’ involved. The story in this chapter is mainly about the administration changes that set things in place for the next two decades. Jeff Stichbury reckoned that the AI service and everything that went with it on herd improvement had produced 25kg of milkfat per cow per year more than would have been the case if the old ways had remained.

Records staff of Auckland Livestock Improvement Association in 1984.
Note: very few computers on desks!

The book has biographies of Tommy Blake (1882-1966), Dr John James, Paul Kneebone and Stan Southcombe.

Table of events in date order
This is a very useful time line of events from 1909 (the start of Herd Testing) to 1984 (the formation of the NZ Dairy Board Livestock Improvement Council).

Clive Dalton interviewed Dr Pat Shannon in April 2009 about developments since the book was published in 1985. Here are the points he made:

Pat Shannon aged 81 and still working two days a week at LIC
where he has been employed contributing to the dairy industry for 50 years.

Pat died age 90 on May 4 2016

  • The number of inseminations from an average bull's ejaculate has risen from 150,000 to 300,000.
  • The life of fresh semen in the field has increased from two days to four days.
  • The number of sperm in a straw of frozen semen has dropped from a minimum of 15 million to 10 million.
  • Semen carried by field technicians changed from test tubes to plastic straws in the 1990s.
  • Advances in computers have allowed more traits to be included in selection indexes.
  • Research into 'genetic markers' has allowed the time taken to prove a bull to drop from five years to one year.
  • Staff now have desk top computers linked to the Internet, instead of being linked to the main LIC computer.
  • Farmers can send and receive their data to LIC via their home computer and the Internet.

1 comment:

  1. An utterly amazing man, Dr Pat Shannon, my uncle. RIP.