Why this Belfast teen learned the fine art of inseminating dairy cows

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

Posted Feb. 20, 2017, at 7:29 a.m.

BELFAST, Maine — Last fall, 16-year-old Karagen Stone had to miss a couple of days of field hockey practice to take a special class.

It wasn’t driver’s ed or SAT prep or anything else that might be expected for a high school sophomore. Stone, though, is clearly not interested in doing the expected. The Belfast teen spent those two days learning how to artificially inseminate cows alongside a bunch of male, adult dairy farmers.

“There aren’t a lot of people who do this, let alone teenagers,” she said, adding that her classmates were surprised and a bit grossed out to learn what she’d been up to. “At first I was kind of hesitant to tell people. But this is what I do. This is what I have an interest in.”

Stone’s interest in cows and animals is longstanding. Her older brother used to work at Keene’s Dairy in Belfast when he was a teenager, and a few years ago she asked fourth-generation dairy farmer and family friend Travis Keene if she could help out, too.

“I’ve always loved animals,” said Stone, whose long hair was pulled back under a warm winter hat and who wore heavy-duty and well-worn Carhartt overalls on the cold day.

Before she learned how to inseminate the cows, she fed them and helped to milk the herd of black-and-white Holsteins. At Keene’s Dairy, a herd of about 100 cows provide nearly 6,000 pounds of creamy milk every day. Some of that is sold at the farm as raw milk, but the vast majority gets picked up every other day by a milk truck and delivered “wherever it’s needed,” Keene said. The farm belongs to the Dairy Farmers of America cooperative. Right now, most of its milk has been going to Garelick Farms dairy manufacturing company, he said.

As is the case with humans, in order for dairy cows to give milk they must get pregnant and give birth. In recent years, more dairy farmers have moved toward artificial insemination as an efficient way to impregnate cows with semen from bulls that have been selected for desirable qualities.

“Everybody does A.I. [artificial insemination] to advance genetics in your animals faster,” Keene said. “You can choose a certain bull for better traits.”

He flipped through the catalogue of available bulls and pointed out one named Stevie, whose semen was stored in a nitrogen canister in the farm’s office.

“He’s supposed to give daughters, and he’s supposed to give more milk,” he said. “We basically buy our bulls for a higher success rate.”

The Keenes have been purchasing the semen from a Wisconsin-based company that also has provided a traveling technician to inseminate the cows. But company officials told him a few months ago they were planning to halt the service portion of the program, because there just weren’t enough farms in the area to make it worth their while — the company has since relented its earlier stance and will still provide the technician to local farms, though at a more expensive per-cow cost. Still, that’s when Keene and Stone decided to take the two-day course in artificial insemination offered at the dairy farm in Knox.

“The first day we spent a lot of time in the classroom,” Stone said. “The second day it was a lot of out-in-the-barn work.”

There, they learned about the cow’s anatomy and how to successfully complete the steps necessary to do artificial insemination. Stone demonstrated what she had learned, pulling a straw of frozen semen out of the canister and loading it into a so-called AI gun that she had placed in her coveralls to warm up. Then she went to the part of the barn where a 1,200-pound Holstein was waiting. Cows ovulate every 21 days, and the farm uses a computer program and an old-school wheel to keep track of which cow is ready and when. The 4-year-old cow already had one calf, and Keene and Stone are hoping she’ll have another in roughly nine months.

Stone donned long blue plastic gloves for the next part, which is messy.

“Even though you’re in a barn, you want to try and keep everything as clean as possible,” she said.

She worked quickly, placing one arm deep into the cow’s rectum to feel through the rectum wall and find her cervix that way. Then Stone inserted the artificial insemination gun through the cow’s vulva with her other hand and tried her best to deposit the semen into the uterus.

“It takes a little bit to figure out where you are,” she said, adding that successful insemination is not that easy. “You can do it perfect. You can do everything right [and it still may not take.]”

The farm breeds about five cows per week. So far, Stone has made about 20 attempts at artificial insemination. She’s had one confirmed pregnancy to date.

“When I found out, I was pretty happy about it,” she said, adding that she’s still waiting to hear if some of the other cows have gotten pregnant, too.

Rick Kersbergen, a University of Maine Cooperative Extension professor, said a good success rate for artificial insemination is about 50 percent. He said it’s good to have more local farmers and others who know how to do it because timing really matters when it comes to breeding dairy cows. A technician driving from far away might not be able to get to the cow until eight or 10 hours after the farmer has realized she is ready.

“It gives them more control over how they breed the cow,” he said. “You can get the timing done perfectly.”

Kersbergen said he was happy to learn of Stone’s interest in learning how to do artificial insemination.

“I think it’s great that she’s doing it,” he said.

Stone said she’d like to keep practicing and improving her technique so her success rate is higher. When it is, she’d like to offer her services to other area farms that might need help. Later, Stone may go on to study animal biology in college and is considering what kind of career she wants. She’s not sure if she wants to be a veterinarian — though her mom would love her to go in that direction — but she’s quite sure she wants to work with animals. Stone, a three-sport athlete who doesn’t lack for confidence, said she’d like to tell other teenage girls that they shouldn’t limit their dreams based on what’s expected of them.

“Girls can get dirty,” she said. “If there’s something you want to do, do it.”

For those interested in learning more about artificial insemination, Genex/CRI is planning to do a course at the Witter Center at the University of Maine on Thursday, March 16, and Friday, March 17. For more information, contact David Marcinkowski by emailing davidmar@maine.edu.