BONNERS FERRY – Sid Skrivseth has spent his life with cows, never getting away from the bovine beauties even when he tried, like when he sold his Holstein herd in the 1980s when the farm crisis swept the Midwest.
Somehow he always returned to cattle, perhaps thanks to divine intervention – Skrivseth is a devout Mennonite – or perhaps his skill at artificially inseminating cattle – a technique of inserting recently thawed semen into the cow’s uterus to impregnate them. It’s a crucial job in the beef and dairy industry.
“I can’t get away from cows,” Skrivseth said, who has artificially inseminated more than 100,000 cows over 47 years. “I’ve always worked with cows. I can’t remember not working with cows.”
Yet at age 74, Skrivseth would like to retire. He just hasn’t found anyone to take over the business and he doesn’t want to leave his clients – spread from Western Montana through North Idaho to northeastern Washington – without a reliable AI person. He owns his own business and is a representative for ABS Global, which has sold semen and other genetic and reproductive products for 75 years.
He credits his success – in which he strives for a 75 percent conception rate – to his diligence, integrity and refusal to cut corners.
“I don’t want to lose that attitude and then quit,” he said. “I want to quit while I still have my head held high.”
Besides, he enjoys the job, traveling to different ranches with various types of cattle from Simmentals and Angus to Herefords and a few dairy cows. Besides breeding cows, he also fills people’s liquid nitrogen tanks. The frozen semen will last forever as long as the tanks stay cold. He likes talking with people, joking and enjoying a cup of coffee even if his mug occasionally gets splatted by cow poo.
“I appreciate that Sid is not just going to hang it up and say ‘I’m out of here,’ ” said Bonners Ferry cattleman Nelson Mast, who had Skrivseth breed 50 of his first-calf heifers last month. “He’s taking care of his customers.”
To breed those heifers with live bulls instead of artificial insemination, Mast would have had to buy two more herd bulls. For him, it’s less expensive to AI and he gets better genetics.
AI breeding allows ranchers to maintain high-quality genetics without having to own and manage the industry’s most expensive bulls. A rancher can improve genetics for specific characteristics – ease of birthing calves, milk production, stout legs for covering rough terrain or muscling and marbling (the white flecks of fat that add flavor to steaks), for instance – by selecting specific bulls to match with each cow. Ranchers flip through catalogs of sires, scrutinizing their best traits and then order the semen. It arrives in individual straws (costing on average $25 each), frozen in a tank of liquid nitrogen that is about negative 300 degrees.
“I told my dad I wanted to be a dairyman,” said Skrivseth, who grew up in northern Minnesota on a farm with about a dozen dairy cows. “He said, ‘Oh, you’ll never make it.’ ”
Skrivseth was a successful dairyman for 26 years, but his AI career that started in 1968 has been the constant. For the first four years as a dairyman, he hired someone to inseminate his cows but then decided to learn himself, taking a course in his living room with a few other guys.
The students first practiced on a dissected reproductive tract of a cow and within a day began working with live cows that were bound for slaughter, not motherhood.
After he sold his dairy cows in the ’80s, Skrivseth worked as a carpenter. In 1989, Skrivseth wintered in South Carolina with his oldest son because carpentry work was slow in the Wisconsin winter. When he came home, he needed a job.
Suffering a migraine, Skrivseth stayed home from a Wednesday prayer meeting but had asked the congregation to pray for him to find work. That night, he got a call from an ABS district manager asking him to return to AI. Skrivseth told the man he had given up cows. After a few meetings, Skrivseth agreed to revive his AI business. In 1993, he won representative of the year for increasing the number of AI-bred cattle in that area of Wisconsin.
In 2000, Skrivseth and his wife, Ruth, moved to Bonners Ferry to be closer to five of their nine children. Again, he thought his AI days were done. Yet once word of his skills got out, he returned to breeding cows.
In the Midwest, he mostly AI bred dairy cattle. Nationwide, about two-thirds of dairy cattle are bred using artificial insemination. In the Northwest, beef cows are more common and the use of AI is less, with about only 5 percent of the nation’s beef cows bred using artificial means, according to a report in Beef Today. Yet Skrivseth said the popularity of AI breeding is increasing in the Northwest.
Sitting in his living room on a recent evening, Skrivseth seems perplexed about whether to retire. He doesn’t want to leave his clients so he vows to keep working.
“I just don’t know what to do about it,” he said, shaking his head. Anyone who expresses interest, he encourages them to go to AI school. So far, nobody has followed through. Skrivseth admits after a long day of breeding more than 100 cattle he gets tired.
“He comes with a lot of experience and endurance to breed that many cows in one day,” said Maureen Mai of RYMO Cattle Co. in Bonners Ferry that had Skrivseth breed more than 200 Simmental cows during two days in April. “It does take a physical toll on you.”
On the first day of RYMO’s breeding, Skrivseth zipped up his coveralls and waited for the first cows to arrive in the chute. Mai carefully took the first straw of semen from the liquid nitrogen tank and put it in a thermos of hot water to defrost. Then she loaded the defrosted straw into the AI gun, which looks like a long stainless steel probe with a plunger on the end.
Skrivseth, wearing arm-length gloves, inserts his left hand into the cow, using his fingers to feel the path as he uses his right hand to insert the gun into the cow’s vulva and through the cervix and into the tip of the uterus where he injects the semen. He calculated that he was breeding a cow every 3.5 minutes. It takes longer when he has to defrost the straws and fill the guns himself.
Ruth Skrivseth said she often receives blank stares when people ask her about her husband’s job. The Skrivseths ignore rude comments or jokes about the process.
“Us farm people don’t even think about it,” Ruth Skrivseth said.
It’s not a job for the squeamish; AI breeding even landed on an episode of the television show “Dirty Jobs.” It’s impossible to inseminate cows and not get covered in feces. At one point, a cow switched her tail, splattering Skrivseth’s glasses. He washes his own coveralls, which his wife appreciates.
Besides cows, Skrivseth has inseminated elk. People ask him to do sheep and swine but he has declined. He’s even been asked to store human semen in his tank to save a couple money from storing it at the medical clinic. Again, he declined.
The cows must be ovulating to get pregnant. Ranchers who use AI breeding synchronize their herds, manipulating the cows’ cycles so they all ovulate at the same time.
Skrivseth said he must develop trust with the ranchers because their livelihood is at stake. Some could do the breeding themselves. Mai is one of those. She studied genetics and AI at the University of Idaho, but has enough cattle that she uses Skrivseth, and appreciates his consistent success. Yet many ranchers haven’t learned the technique.
“They don’t have any idea what I’m doing in there,” Skrivseth said. “I have to earn their confidence.”
For the cows that don’t get pregnant after an AI procedure, the ranches have herd bulls they turn out with the cows to breed on their next cycle.
Although Skrivseth owns no cows and instead only “farms” his large yard, he gets to enjoy his success each spring.
“I love to get out of the truck in a rancher’s yard and see all the calves hopping around out there,” he said, as if talking about his grandchildren. “That’s just a picture.”
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