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Sex and sensors

July 9, 2012

More than 90 percent of dairy cows in Germany are artificially inseminated - many are equipped with sensors that monitor when they are 'in heat.' Sex is just not an option.

Aufgenommen von Naomi Conrad, Mai 2012, Hof: Wintjens. Zu sehen sind Kühe, sowie Samenproben im Kühlbehälter.
Image: Naomi Conrad

"It's more fun to milk a beautiful cow with pretty legs or a nice udder," says farmer Joesph Wintjens as he proudly points out his favourite cow, Perry.

The Frisian is exceptionally good-looking. Large dark eyes, the smallest trickle of saliva hanging from her soft black nose, her sturdy legs folded under a shapely behind.

She has won several beauty contests - both regional and national.

Perry is surrounded by about sixty ever so just slightly less perfect Frisian cows, all calmly munching away on their mid-day pellets or dozing in the straw.

Perry's beauty is Wintjens' doing.

In the 1990s, fresh out of farming college, Wintjens decided it was time to modernise his parents' small dairy farm - tucked away in the fertile countryside of Western Germany. Wintjens, who is now in his forties, replaced the barn with larger area where the cows can move around freely. He also sold his father's bull and took a course in artificial insemination.

Defrosted semen

Artificial insemination has been aound since the 1950s when scientists discovered that bull semen will survive being frozen and defrosted.

The semen is stored in nitrogen
The semen is stored in nitrogenImage: Naomi Conrad

To survive in the competitive dairy market, Wintjens' cows have had to produce more milk - and breed more calves.

Perry's sturdy legs are designed to support the weight of a calf and her large behind isn strong enough to make giving birth easy.

"It's very difficult to control the calves' genetic qualities with a bull," Wintjens explains as he carefully side-steps a cow pat.

"You can't control the genes," he says.

The semen is stored in a blue container of liquid nitrogen in Wintjens' small office which overlooks the barn. A cow gazes in through the spotless window as Wintjens leafs through a shiny catalogue - each page pictures a large bull in a green field and lists its genetic properties. As he pulls out a vial containing a diluted dose of semen, clouds of white nitrogen spill out of the container. He quickly closes the lid. At 200 euros per dose - and flown in from Canada - the semen is far too valuable to waste on anything but a cow in heat.

The sex sensor

On the other side of the window, Perry slowly ambles to a feeding trough in the middle of the barn and starts munching away. When she has had her six kilograms of pellets, a small black sensor attached to her green collar sends a signal to the computerized trough, telling it to stop dispensing food.

"It's far more efficient and we spend less on feeding," says Wintjens.

Wintjens in his office
Wintjens spends 200 euros per inseminationImage: Naomi Conrad

There is a second small box on Perry's collar - the sex sensor.

"It often used to take several inseminations before our cows got pregnant," says Wintjens.

Bulls can smell it when a cow is in heat - but a human is less skilled in this area. The sex sensors are there to help.

Cows display various symptoms when they are ready to conceive, including restlessness and rather more obvious attempts to mount each other.

"Often the period between a cow displaying her heat symptoms and ovulating is actually quite small," says Professor Karl Schellander, who heads the department of animal husbandry at the University of Bonn.

Graphs and heat

Farmer Wintjens trains a local football team twice a week and is reluctant to spend long nights in the barn watching over his cows for heat symptoms. That is what the sex sensor is for.

He uses a product called Heatime - one of several including Kamar Heatmount Detectors and Beacon Heat Detectors. Heatime measures a cow's temperature twice a day and sends the data to a small computer.

When a cow is ready to conceive, her temperature rises - as does the graph on the computer screen in Wintjens' office. And when it does, Wintjens defrosts a dose of semen.

Digging in dirt

Wintjens carries out the artificial insemination himself.

He twists the cow's tail back, cheerfully chatting away as his entire arm disappears into her.

"Well, yes, of course, there are nicer things than digging around in excrement, but someone has to do it," he says.

Infografik Artificial Inseminations in Germany ENG English

He shrugs a shoulder as the other twists to carefully bypass the cow's intestines.

"I'm now holding down the uterus," Wintjens calls out before inserting the semen.

Perry ambles past again as the cow that Wintjens is inseminating snorts loudly.

It is not a happy snort. It makes you wonder whether she would prefer real sex.

"How would they know? They've never had real sex," Wintjens laughs.

Even animal rights groups say artificial insemination is little different to real sex.

"Cows don't really have a love life," says Dr Edmund Haverbeck from the group, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA).

What's more, Haverbeck and Wintjens agree that bulls don't make great lovers. They can be agressive.

Monitoring every move

Wintjens spent 6500 Euros on 20 Heattime collars. He is considering buying more for another forty cows. But he may have to invest even more heavily. The next step, he says, will be to buy a computer station. The computers would monitor his cows' every move, including such things as their stomach acidity and water consumption.

"This kind of precision dairy farming enables us to look into every animal," says Professor Schellander.

He is convinced that technology is the future.

As herds expand it will become harder for farmers to personally check every animal. But Schellander says sensors will provide objective information about every cow and even detect diseases before they break out.

One of Wintjens' cows
Bulls - they ain't great loversImage: Naomi Conrad

Invest or die

"Small farms with 80 or 90 cows can't feed a family any more," says Schellander.

His parents were forced to close their own farm business years ago. Today, he says, farms have to expand and modernise - or die.

Soon, Wintjens will face this very choice.

At 130,000 euros for 60 cows, a computer station is an investment he is not entirely sure he can handle.

"If we can't make ends meet, we'll have to sell the farm," Wintjens shrugs, almost indifferently. "I'm not spending my life enslaved to a bank - and nor are my children!"

But beautiful Perry seems blissfully unaware of her keeper's dilemma - as she munches away, monitored by her many sensors.

Author: Naomi Conrad near the German-Belgian border
Editor: Zulfikar Abbany