Who said farming can’t be fun?

April 18, 2013

Hohenzell, Austria

By Leonhard Foeger

“Sure, you can come and take pictures. We don’t have any secrets here and you will have a very special view of the sex life of breeding bulls nowadays,” Josef Miesenberger, head of the artificial insemination station in Hohenzell, told me on the phone when I asked to shoot a story about cattle breeding in Austria.

One might imagine cattle breeding involves green grass, some trees, and a cow and bull coming together in their natural world doing what they have done to procreate since the dawn of time.
But when I arrived at the insemination center near the village of Hohenzell at six in the morning I saw a farmhouse-like building with huge barns and a laboratory inside.

Johannes, one of the bull keepers, showed up and let me in. I had to change into green overalls and boots before I was allowed to enter the barn with about 50 breeding bulls. The smell of bulls hit me intensely. My lenses immediately fogged up due to the high humidity inside. I could see Austria’s most expensive and exclusive breeding bulls having breakfast. Josef, another bull keeper, told me to just act like a bull keeper and not take any pictures since the bulls were very sensitive if they don’t know the people in their barn. After a while I started to take some images and the bulls just looked as if they were wondering what was going on.

At 7:30 everything was ready for a procedure where sperm would be collected in a special hall next to the stable. Every bull has to deliver sperm on Tuesdays and Fridays, twice a day with a short break in between. Since the bulls weigh between 600 and 1100 kilograms (1322 and 2425 pounds) they could easily harm people standing next to them. There are iron poles between the wall and “jumping” facilities where you could hide in a safer place in case a bull preferred to run and not provide sperm. A bull has to jump on either an artificial cow or on another bull to ejaculate. It depends on what the bulls prefer. I was told to be careful and always keep an eye on the bulls. After a while younger and smaller bulls reported for duty. They walked around checking the artificial cow, walked back to check the bull pretending to be a cow, walked around another time and then all of a sudden one jumped on his colleague and wanted to have intercourse.

The animal doctor Franz jumped to his side to intervene and collect the semen. The whole act took only a few seconds and I nearly forgot to take pictures. Franz looked in the tube and said, “Oh well, not too much, this is a young one. Wait for our superstar called Wille, he will show up soon.”

Then Wille, born in April 2006, arrived. Johannes had him on the rope and very slowly they walked around checking the situation. Wille weighs around 1100 kilograms (2425 pounds), so he is too heavy to jump on other bulls. He has to use the artificial cow.

Wille sniffed the artificial cow, moved back, moved forward, moved back and all of a sudden jumped. Franz, the doctor, grabbed the bull and tried to direct his sperm into the artificial device he was holding in his other hand. Sperm was flying around, hitting the doctor’s face but finally he got a good portion of it in the glass. Proudly he showed it to me, blinking because some of it was in his eyes.

So far Wille has produced 375,000 portions of semen, which is sold worldwide for breeding purposes.

Franz gave the glass to Lambert in the laboratory so he could check the quality and quantity before it was frozen. Lambert took a drop and looked at it under the microscope. Afterwards, it would be diluted and allowed to rest at 4 degrees Celsius (39 degrees Fahrenheit) for some hours. Later that day the diluted specimen is loaded into small green plastic pipes with the name, date and number marked on it and frozen in liquid nitrogen at a temperature of minus 196 degrees Celsius (minus 320 degrees Fahrenheit).

Georg, the head of delivery, checked the order of various clients, and packaged the specimen into smaller containers for delivery by car or plane.

While I was standing in the laboratory, all the bull keepers – Johannes, Peter, Josef and Franz – showed up. They invited me over for a drink after a hard day of interesting work in the insemination center. Then we went home to see our children – a pleasure the bulls of Hohenzell will probably never enjoy.

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