Raymond Ansotegui and the art of artificially inseminating cattle
It's an early June morning on Montana's 60,000-acre Bair Ranch, north of the Crazy Mountains. Black cow-calf pairs dot the pastures under a frigid rain. It streams from the hats and soaks the chaps of the men and women who exit the bunkhouse, fully caffeinated and sated by steak and eggs. They are here to artificially inseminate 510 Angus/Simmental-cross cows under the direction of Raymond P. Ansotegui, a wiry 64-year-old with rascally brown eyes, bushy chops and a tobacco-tinged moustache.
Ansotegui, whose Basque name is pronounced an-SOH´-tuh-ghee, has been artificially inseminating cattle (AIing) for almost 45 years. An expert on bovines, he has a Ph.D. in ruminant nutrition and a minor in reproductive physiology. He taught animal science at Montana State University in Bozeman for three decades before retiring in 2007. The license on his Ford F250 reads "OEC," for overeducated cowboy.
In Montana, where beef is big business, you won't find a better AIer than Ansotegui. Every spring, the Livingston, Mont., resident hits the road like a touring rock star, AIing upwards of 3,000 cattle. A revolving cast of characters -- the merry pranksters of AI -- leave their day jobs to work with him in the so-called Shaggin' Wagon, a custom-built mobile breeding barn. Today they include his wife, Linda, a retired banker, and former students and colleagues.
The mud in the Shaggin' Wagon is deep and black, but the mood is jovial. Ansotegui works alongside former students Brian Engle, who built the floorless gooseneck trailer, and Harve VanWagoner. While VanWagoner thaws semen packaged in plastic straws from a tank of liquid nitrogen, Ansotegui and Engle AI. They wear surgical gloves on one hand, armpit-length pink plastic gloves on the other. Each faces a chute holding a cow.
What follows is "a fascinating and disgusting bit of art," says Mark S. Roberson, chair of Biomedical Sciences, Cornell University, and another former Ansotegui student. "You're fighting manure to put gametes together to make one of the most important commodities in agriculture -- the calf." Ansotegui slowly extends his left arm up the rectum of the cow as his right hand threads a slender pipette called a gun up her vagina. Through her colon wall, he grasps her cervix, placing it over the gun tip. As he depresses the plunger, 20-40 million bovine sperm are deposited in her uterus. The men can breed hundreds of cows a day, calmly inseminating each one in under a minute.
The procedure requires a sensitive touch. "The hardest person to teach AI is a guitar player," says Ansotegui, referring to the musicians' calluses. Engle and VanWagoner chuckle.
"Dad knows how to feed and breed cows to make the perfect steak," says Ansotegui's son, Raymond D. Ansotegui, a reclamation scientist. The elder Ansotegui not only looks like he walked off the set of a Western, he is the real deal, a Basque buckaroo from the Great Basin of Oregon and Nevada, where his grandfather and granduncles settled in the early 1900s.
Ansotegui spent his youth working cattle, chasing mustangs and learning the "cowboy code." His family moved often, and by the time he graduated high school in 1965, they owned a prosperous lumberyard in Fallon, but there was no large family ranch for him to run. "I graduated second in my class, so I got scholarships to Reno," he says. There, at the University of Nevada, he earned a bachelor's in animal science, then a master's in range nutrition. He also learned the two key skills that would shape his career: how to fistulate cattle (a fistula is a surgically installed "door" into the digestive system a living cow), and how to AI.
Ansotegui went on to work for American Breeder Services, selling bull semen and teaching AI, moving his growing family to Montana in 1974. Two years later, tired of being on the road, he took a one-time, one-year teaching contract in the Animal and Range Sciences Department of MSU. "It took me 31 years to get out of it," he laughs, his eyes crinkling with smile lines.
He taught over 30 different courses, conducted groundbreaking research, published 80 academic papers and abstracts, and won numerous teaching awards. During that time, he also earned a Ph.D. for a seminal nutrition study that remains one of his crowning scientific achievements.
By fistulating calves at 45 days of age, a feat thought impossible, Ansotegui was the first to document their transformation from milk-sucklers to grass-munching ruminants, a process that requires ingesting digestive bacteria from their mothers. "The biggest source of rumen bugs," he explains, "is cow manure." With him every summer, elbow deep in rumen goop, were Linda, their son, Raymond, their daughter, Denise, now a microbiologist, and various students.
Ansotegui is known for mumbling dry one-liners through his moustache: "Eat every egg you see, so there's one less chicken in the world." Or, "Salad is what food eats." His dry wit and occasional cow-centric saltiness are a form of self-effacement. "The only reason they offered me the (graduate school) assistantship was they needed a cowboy," he says.
Time is of the essence today, because all the Bair Ranch cows come into heat within a matter of days. Ansotegui synchronized their ovulation in advance with two injections of naturally occurring hormone-like compounds, including prostaglandin. Prostaglandin, which is metabolized almost instantly, revolutionized the industry by reducing breeding time from three weeks (a cow's natural cycle) to days. Pioneering research done by Ansotegui through MSU in the late '70s was instrumental in getting the drug approved. "We were using it before it was cleared," he says.
Linda Ansotegui, a topnotch ranch hand, sits elegantly astride her palomino mare, her blue eyes scanning the sodden, shooting star-dotted pasture in search of "hots" -- cows mounting each other. It's a sure sign that the cow being ridden is in standing estrous and will ovulate in 24 hours. Linda also looks for activated estrous detection patches, nifty new inventions that are stuck to the cows' rumps and turn neon colors when rubbed, like lottery tickets.
Ideally, about 80 percent of the cows Ansotegui's team inseminates will conceive. The rest may be bred by a "clean-up" bull, or sold. AI ensures a high conception rate and enables ranchers to manipulate herd genetics without having to purchase or maintain a stable of bulls, which can be costly and dangerous. (In fact, man-killing dairy bulls motivated the development of AI.) "You can use superior genetics," Ansotegui explains. "Your calf will weigh more at weaning time. He's gonna be more fertile, have a higher carcass quality, and better rates of gain. And he's gonna do it on less feed."
Seed bulls are rated on genetically determined characteristics, including feed efficiency, calving ease (how readily a sire's female offspring give birth), and even scrotal size -- a marker of fertility. Semen is a multimillion dollar business: Whereas one bull may naturally breed 20 cows a season, one harvested ejaculation, by electronic anal stimulation, may fill up to 100 straws, translating into tens of thousands of offspring. Straws range in price from $5 to thousands, and can be frozen indefinitely.
Although AI is an increasingly important part of modern ranching, the National Association of Animal Breeders estimates that only 10 percent of beef producers participate. AI can pay for itself, but it's time-consuming and best suited to ranches that keep replacement heifers to develop their herd. And ensuring conception this way requires an old-school approach: skilled manual labor.
Teaching those abilities is arguably what Ansotegui does and loves best. He has mentored generations of OECs -- overeducated cowboys -- ranchers, veterinarians and cowhands who have shaped the cattle industry worldwide. At MSU, Ansotegui taught hands-on, requiring his AI students to breed 50 cows using their dominant hand, then switch. "Ray can bring it down to the practical level," says rancher and former student Matt Pierson, "because he has real-world experience." Despite his retirement, Ansotegui still teaches, lecturing for feed companies and at AI schools, and doing private consultation. And, of course, he continues to AI. After all, he says, "It's a cowboy job that pays."
The rain has ceased. Linda Ansotegui carefully thaws semen and loads guns, her waist-length hair in a braid. Abruptly, she turns to the door and says, disgustedly, "You know when I say, 'Crap!' I mean it -- literally." She wipes splattered manure from her mouth. Everyone outside laughs. From inside the Shaggin' Wagon, Ray inquires wryly, "They gettin' enough salt in their diets?" Linda nods and laughs, "Yes, yes."