BROWNSVILLE, Wis. — Cow sense is an important quality for artificial insemination technicians.
“Anybody can breed a cow, but the biggest thing is heat detection because every farm is different,” said Chris Cunningham, key accounts manager for Accelerated Genetics, a provider of bovine genetics and reproductive services, headquartered in Baraboo.
“There are little things that make each farm unique when it comes to how the cows show heat,” Cunningham explained. “I can teach someone how to breed a cow within a week, but learning how to do heat detection can take eight to nine months.”
For example, the AI technician said, older cows might just follow a person around in a pen.
“They’re too old to jump on something,” he said. “It takes awhile to learn things like that.”
Cunningham has been involved with the dairy industry for most of his life. His family managed a registered dairy herd near Janesville until they exited the industry in 1998. About a year later, the high school student began milking cows at a neighboring dairy farm.
“Within 10 years, I was doing everything from feeding to field work to giving shots and milking,” Cunningham recalled.
He began working at Accelerated Genetics eight years ago, after receiving a call from his brother, Danny. Although he knew how to work with cows, Cunningham had no experience with AI work.
“I rode with my brother for the first two months, and he whipped me into shape pretty quick,” Cunningham recalled. “And after about two years, I got my own area, and the first farm I started with was Zinke Farms, which is a 1,000-cow Holstein dairy with a 32,000-pound herd average.”
Cunningham learned how to do AI breeding with on-the-job training and since then has trained many others.
For several years, Cunningham worked with seven dairy operations with a total of 12,000 cows.
“With another full-time guy, we were visiting these farms every day, and on Mondays, Thursdays and Fridays, I was AI breeding cows,” he explained. “I was doing AI breeding on about 3,000 cows per month.”
However, Cunningham said, his job includes far more than just heat detection and AI breeding.
“I also look for other things like cows with sore feet, cows that are sick and cows that shouldn’t be in the herd anymore,” he noted. “This is the value that Accelerated brings to the table besides just getting cows pregnant.”
And, he said, he must be able to work with dairy software programs.
“As a technician, you need to know how to use programs like Dairy Comp,” he added.
“One of the hardest thing about AI breeding is you don’t know how you did until 30 days later,” Cunningham said. “And when I’m training people, it’s important to be patient because you can’t expect them to know how to do it overnight, but within two to three months, they need a good grasp of what we’re doing.”
Another important aspect of his job, Cunningham said, is the ability to relate to dairymen.
“Getting the respect of farmers goes a long ways in the dairy industry,” he stressed. “Farmers want someone who cares and is engaged in their work.
“The farmers are what I like most about my job,” he said. “As a high school student, I told myself that I would always do something in agriculture.”
As a key accounts manager, Cunningham makes cold calls to dairies and develops proposals.
“I need to find what the dairy actually needs and find out what problems they are having before I can give advice and direction to fix the problem,” Cunningham said. “That’s when you get respect from the farmers.”
Cunningham provides additional tools and services to dairymen such as advice on matings for cows or working with veterinarians.
“On the Zinke farm, I know the vet and nutritionist. It’s important to have those relationships,” he added. “And the bigger the dairy gets, the more the systems must work together.”
Although there is not much about his job that Cunningham does not like, he said, as an AI technician he works a lot of hours, including holidays and weekends.
“Growing up on a dairy farm taught me that you work every day of the week,” he added. “And when you are doing AI work on a lot of cows, it can be hard on your body.”
Accelerated Genetics encourages Cunningham to travel to other states to increase his knowledge about the dairy industry.
“I’ve been to Kansas, California, Idaho and Arizona working with company employees and farmers to get more experiences,” he said. “They may have challenges we’ve already overcome, so it helps to bring someone in from a different geographic area.”
It is difficult for many dairymen in the Midwest to expand their operations due to lack of available land.
“Dairymen are moving heifers out west so they can milk more cows,” Cunningham noted. “Then the feed that went to the heifers can now be fed to the cows.”
And the quality of heifers developed in the west is better, he said, because they are housed on dry lots.
“I’ve been working extensively with a heifer ranch in Kansas that custom-raises heifers that come back to Wisconsin,” he added.
“Working with dairy farms is a passion for me, it’s not just a job,” Cunningham said.
For more information about Accelerated Genetics, go to www.accelgen.com.