The students are nervous. The cows, not so much. But only because they don’t know what’s coming. They’re lined up in stalls in the Old Dairy Barn—10 Holsteins on one side, 10 Jerseys on the other—where, during the next few hours, they will undergo artificial insemination (AI) by small teams of undergrads who each have a particular cow in their care.
Professor John Parrish and two TAs direct students as they prep for the procedure, which starts by pulling plastic straws filled with bull semen out of frozen storage, thawing them in warm water, and loading them into long syringes called AI guns. The students don long plastic gloves; AI is a two-armed operation. One hand will pilot the AI gun up the cow’s vagina, through the cervix, and into the uterus. The other hand, inserted far up the cow’s rectum, presses along the rectal wall to help manipulate the gun into place.
“No, I’ve never done this before,” laughs student Brandee Roberts while heeding Parrish’s call to “lube up” an arm. She grew up in Milwaukee with the goal of becoming an obstetrician, and finds working with cows and pigs in Parrish’s Reproductive Physiology class highly relevant to her future. Her teammate Carissa Levash grew up on a dairy farm but says her father handled all the breeding. She wants to work in dairy industry sales. Their teammate Ty Hildebrandt, on the other hand, was raised in dairy and wields the AI gun like a pro. In a class made up mostly of city kids (and 80 percent women), most teams have one experienced member to offer additional guidance. Gamely the trio marches over to Cow #15, a gentle Jersey they’ve named Betsy.
This year the students have gotten to know their cows particularly well. While Animal Science/Dairy Science 434 has long offered students the opportunity to perform AI, that was their only hands-on work with the cows. Now, additional funding through the new Madison Initiative for Undergraduates (MIU), which uses a supplemental tuition charge to improve undergrad education and expand financial aid, has enabled the students to do a whole lot more.
Students are in charge of syncing their cow’s reproductive cycle to be ready for AI on a particular date. They administer injections to bring their cow into heat and then concoct and inject the best hormonal cocktail to ensure their cow will ovulate some 12 to 18 hours after insemination. They’ll track their cow to see if she goes into heat again or gets pregnant, using ultrasound to help make the final determination.
Previously all of that work—which is part and parcel of modern cattle breeding and key to understanding reproductive physiology—would have been done by teaching assistants. But an additional TA funded through MIU meant the hands-on work could fall to the students themselves, with the TAs serving as coordinators and coaches.
The students are thrilled. “Most other pre-vet undergrads that I know at other schools don't have these opportunities,” says Erin Harris.
Over at Betsy’s stall, Roberts, Levash, and Hildebrandt take turns inseminating. Apparently it’s not so simple. “Can you feel the cervix? Do you think you’re in yet?” Parrish coaches. “You can feel the gun tip when it’s in the vagina and in the uterus, but not while it’s in the cervix!” Betsy remains remarkably unperturbed, all things considered.
The students seem pleased with their efforts. Parrish expects only six or seven cows will conceive—it takes a lot of practice to become proficient—but for him, that’s not the main measure of success. “The students keep thinking it’s just to get the cow pregnant,” he says. “But I don’t care so much about that. What I care about is how much they’re learning about reproduction.”