Students receive professional experience at artificial breeding unit

Sydney Bigger, senior in animal science, follows a bull from his pen to the artificial breeding unit main building on April 17, 2017. (Regan Tokos | The Collegian)

The promotion of livestock genetics has continuously been researched over the years because of steps taken to improve technology and science for livestock genetics in the production process.

The Kansas Artificial Breeding Service Unit at Kansas State’s mission is to serve livestock producers in the Midwest and help promote beef and dairy cattle genetics.

The unit is a bull stud service unit that works with the department of animal sciences and industry, and it serves as a tool for education and employment for students while also helping livestock producers — primarily cattle producers — with genetics in their herds.

A “bull stud” service is operated from collecting bull semen, sorting through it and checking fertility of the samples. The unit provides this service for the Midwest and services about 600-700 bulls every year.

The unit also provides breeding soundness exams and tissue sample collections for producers to check the status of fertility of these bulls. Breeding soundness exams are systematic evaluations of males that test their reproductive potential — including mating ability and libido — and an assessment of sperm production and quality.

The unit freezes approximately 60,000 straws of semen in a year, houses about 30-35 bulls and does not own any of the animals or semen samples. The facility also assists producers with their service of being able to store semen straws or tanks in the storage room for their customers.

“We mainly provide service for beef and dairy cattle,” said Tom Taul, facility manager of the unit. “However, we have collected from a few sheep and goats, as well as other species such as dog, equine and even yak. We’ve also collected embryo and tissue samples from the veterinary hospital.”

Student opportunities

“The culture at KABSU is second to none,” said Sydney Bigger, senior in animal science. “I really enjoy working with everyone there, and they always make work fun. Whether I am cleaning pens or learning something new in the lab, it really is a learning environment and I have really enjoyed all my time there.”

The unit has several departments where students can find opportunities to learn and gain experience. Some of the departments include laboratory, shipping and handling, collection and maintenance.

“We get a lot of orders from people calling in and asking us to ship out their semen to a customer of theirs,” said Taylor Ochs, sophomore in agribusiness. “Even though I’m the student in shipping and handling, I am still able to go help in the lab if needed to take any straws to the semen tanks for storage.”

Ochs, who grew up around cattle feedlots in Kansas, said she had a general understanding of livestock genetics in the cattle industry before she began working at the unit, but has gained experience and learned that the job is a lot of responsibility.

“I always thought it would be really great to work for a breed association and (see) the whole process of genetics in the cattle industry,” Ochs said. “Being able to alter cattle genetics has really opened my eyes to actually see the effort into making these genetics the best that they can possibly be. It’s crazy what our industry can do to produce amazing cattle and meet the needs of producers.”

There are also a few research projects that are conducted at the unit specifically for graduate students whose research focus is reproductive physiology and palpation.

Taul said these research projects are also conducted through the purebred unit, and there are some continuing education meetings, palpation classes and a classroom for the animal sciences and industry department at the facility.

“I really like getting to see bulls as they grow and develop into herd sires,” Bigger said. “A lot of bulls that come to KABSU come in as yearlings, and then again as mature bulls, and it has been fun to see them change over time.”

Bigger said that working at the unit has helped her gain experience, especially with being in the lab. She has learned how to put semen into straws and then put those straws into canisters to place in the semen tanks.

“The practice of looking at the samples will serve very beneficial when I am in vet school and after I graduate,” Bigger said.

Each year there are typically five student employees at the unit to cover the various departments and help the rest of the staff with the services provided. Students are in charge of feeding bulls, cleaning pens, sanitizing equipment that is used for collections, caning semen and assisting in the lab.

When semen is collected, evaluated and put into straws, then those straws are put into canes, which is like a container to hold the straws. A single straw will typically hold four milliliters of semen with a high concentration of sperm.

“One thing about the students that come out and work here is that they all really enjoy working here, and it has really broadened their exposure to cattle and the industry,” Taul said. “A lot of the students have really been good students that are very well-rounded, active individuals who are willing to put in the work. We’ve had some students that just needed a job, applied, and we found them to be a nice fit to work here.”

Taul said some of the students come from agricultural backgrounds, but there are a few who have not had any agricultural or livestock experience.

“I think we’re all kind of like a big family at the unit. We are constantly helping each other out at the unit to get certain things done,” Ochs said. “It’s just a really great atmosphere to work in, and my boss knows everybody that comes in by their first names, so I think that just makes it a really personable experience for the customers. As I continue working there, I hope to be able to address everyone by their first names too, because that can just make coming to KABSU even better for the customers.”

Unit history

Since the 1950s, the unit has provided semen collection, breeding soundness and other genetic services to livestock producers in the industry as an avenue for promoting their herd genetics.

The program initially started as dairy cattle only; however, it has evolved to serve the beef cattle industry. In the beginning, the unit owned its own cattle as well, but today it does not own any of the animals it services.

One hundred percent of the revenue the unit receives comes from the charges of its services from producers in the livestock industry.

“For us to continue to operate and provide services, the support of the livestock industry from producers is essential to keep us functional and operating as a unit,” Taul said.

Taul said the unit used to be housed at a separate site until it was sold in 2009, when it relocated to the current location and building to continue developing the program.

“Through the support of the department, producers and alumni, we have really come around as a facility since being sold out,” Taul said. “Our program has really developed and continues to be a useful source for livestock producers in our industry.”

Editor’s note: This is the tenth and final story in a series on the livestock units at K-State.