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Q&A: Training to AI abroad - what could you learn?

Kevin Rickard travelled abroad to train as an artificial insemination (AI) technician some four years ago. Laura Bowyer catches up with him to see how his time overseas helped him in his chosen career.


After training as an AI technician, Kevin Rickard now works as a precision match evaluator for Cogent.

At home in Bishton, near Newport, he keeps pedigree herds of Starlet Holsteins and Jerseys with his fiancee Sian Webber and her father Martin Webber.

Mr Rickard can regularly be seen in showrings around the country, having had champions both locally and nationally.

Q What is your job and what does your role include on a day-to-day basis?

Day-to-day, my role is very varied, but essentially my job is to ensure my customers are breeding the right cows for their systems.

The first thing I do when I make my morning tea is look at my phone to see which customers I need to visit that day. Once on-farm, I have a discussion with the farmer on what they want to achieve in their herd.

Then, I make an extensive assessment of each member of the herd from maiden heifers through to cows in third or fourth lactations. This allows their strengths and weaknesses to be determined and provides me with a complete genetic blueprint of the whole herd.

Once I have made my evaluation, I will have a discussion with the farmer and, together, we can make an informed sire choice to satisfy all personal requirements and deliver optimum performance for their next generation of calves.

At the end of the day, all of my accounts will be automatically updated to the cloud-based system from work I have done. Tomorrow, we start all over again.

Q What prompted you to train in AI?

I am a believer in breeding dairy cows for the right goals: more milk production per cow; greater longevity; and improved fertility. As my career progressed, I sometimes began to see the farm stock bull was not always hitting the right targets and I knew a change needed to happen.

AI not only revolutionised the dairy industry, but training in this field allowed me to take my own passions and knowledge and use them to improve my customers’ herds in the best possible way.

Becoming an AI technician provided me with an incredible career and I have never once regretted it.

Q Why did you go abroad to train?

The main reason for travelling abroad to train was the volume of cows made available.

When in Washington in 2013, I was training on a 27,000-cow dairy unit and was on similar-sized units in Melbourne in 2012.

I was getting to put my hand in hundreds of cows each day and, as they say, practice makes perfect.

Q Did you find any differences between the way things are done in Australia and America compared to the UK?

The actual insemination of cows is similar in America and Australia, although when in the USA, I learned how to palpate ovaries to feel for corpus luteums [a temporary endocrine structure in the ovaries] allowing me to make the best breeding decisions when presented with a cow thought to be in heat. This is now a technique used in this country.

In the UK, semen is deposited in the cervix, but I was taught to horn-breed in the US, where the semen is deposited in both horns, increasing the rate of conception.

Q How was the farming different in these two countries to our own?

Farming in these countries is different, with larger scaled farms than in the UK. But I was impressed with the farms I visited, as they were efficient, consistent and everything was run almost like clockwork.

Breeding-wise, they seem to be one step ahead. They genomic test their whole herd, then breed the top genomic 30 per cent to sexed semen, with the rest going to beef semen which always speeds up the genomic value of the herd.

Q How would your training have been different in this country?

all aspects of fertility management with fully qualified trainers.

The programme featured specific training on cow signal types, all physical and technical aspects of the reproductive cycle, best practice, handling semen and a whole lot more.

The company’s specialists will emerge from training with a benchmark of ideal practices which are continually monitored throughout their career.

The most important aspect is customer service. Making sure my farmers are happy with the service I provide is important to both my company and me.

I call most of my farmers as regularly as possible, especially before their breeding season. The customer service aspect of my job can often take the most time, which may include giving my customer the best advice if he wants to try different bulls, or just taking five minutes to look at a calf which a farmer is delighted with.
It is all part of the job I love.

Q Has your training helped you in your own business?

I have learned how to put embryos in and have just passed my epidural course. With the amount of embryos we put in at home, I am hoping a big cost saving will be made for my own business.

Q How do you think technologies are going to move forward?

There can be no doubt the agricultural industry is moving forward rapidly and the importance of the right technology, genetics and services will only become greater.

Automated technologies have the potential to change the way we manage cows and, in the future, I believe we will be able to understand the whole herd’s condition in a way we previously might have only dreamed of.

Tomorrow’s dairy farm will not just amount to better returns at the farmgate, but the implementation of state-of-the-art technologies will ensure the farm is ultimately more productive, sustainable and efficient.

However, I also firmly believe UK dairy farmers will still have an important role to play. New tools to help farmers make more timely and informed decisions will lead to better productivity and improved profitability, but technology cannot always replace a person with good ‘cow sense’.

The farm of the future will certainly reap the benefits of new technology, but the importance of a team spirit, good management skills and regular visits from reproductive specialists will remain as vital as ever to bottom line success.

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