Canada now has fewer cows than at any time since the early 1990s and, say analysts, it’s partially millennials’ fault.
Waikato dairy farmer Jennie Macky, who started the Teaser Bull Company in 2013, won the best agri-businesswoman of the year title in the Fly Buys Mumtrepreneur Awards of 2015, just as the dairy downturn was starting to bite.
“Mumtrepreneur was just before we had those couple of years of hard times in the industry,” said Macky. “I thought, ‘man this is going to be tough’. I assumed we wouldn’t lease out many bulls and things would go very quiet. But actually the reverse happened.”
Macky said veterinary intervention such as hormone-release CIDRs was very expensive, as was buying bulls to put over the herd, at a time when the beef schedule was also extremely high.
“So it became an economically viable thing for them to do, to try teaser bulls to reduce veterinary intervention and also not have to purchase high-value beef stock. [The downturn] actually improved my business.”
Meanwhile, LIC introduced short-gestation semen.
“So we found that people may take a break and use bulls, but then they’ll start AI-ing again later, using short gestation semen. And they love to have teaser bulls then, because there’s only a few cows on heat and it’s hard to find them unless there’s a teaser bull in the herd.”
The Teaser Bull Company leases young sterile bulls to farmers; the bulls help farmers identify cows on heat, improving submission rates in herds. Once the lease is over, the teaser bulls are sold to freezing works.
Macky cites a study by Dunsandel vet Chris Norton in the 2007-08 season, which showed that running teaser bulls at the start of mating resulted in an extra 7% of cows coming into heat over the first 21 days; 6% more cows in calf at four weeks; on average a 2.7 day reduction in time taken to get back in-calf; and a leftward shift in the cumulative in-calf curve.
Macky, brought up in nearby Tirau, is herself a vet, having graduated from Massey in 1997. She and partner James Kinston, who have five children, are 50% equity partners on a 1000-cow farm at Parawera and milk 230 cows on a leased farm at Kihikihi.
She no longer works in a veterinary practice, but her experience includes working through the huge 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak in Cumbria, England, which she described as “a pretty amazing experience”.
With mating now starting in the North Island, Macky’s season has begun and teasers have already been delivered to some clients. She is also about to begin vasectomising next year’s teasers.
One testicle is removed entirely to provide an external marker, and a large piece of the vas deferens of the other is removed. That is sent to the lab for confirmation that the procedure has been done properly.
She does them when they’re young, so there is plenty of time before they are put to work and no chance of unintentional pregnancy.
“I’m about to start. In October-November I’ll do all the 200 that will be used next year. So there’s loads of time. I do them now because the smaller they are, the easier they are to control.”
Macky has usually provided yearlings as the lease animals. Clients accustomed to the yearlings were happy with them but she said many farmers couldn’t “get their head around” the idea that a yearling was big enough for the job.
She had also tried two-year-olds but clients found them too big and too “bolshie” and she wouldn’t use them again.
However, having switched her main herd to autumn calving she has found the happy medium: raising autumn bulls which go out as teasers at 18 months old and about 50kg heavier than yearlings.
“It’s their bigger frame; they’re just a little older and a little more aggressive. They’re just starting to get that spunk about them, getting a bit more boy-like, and they’re big enough that the farmers like them.”
An alternative to vasectomising was to push the testicles up against the abdomen and remove the scrotum so the body heat suppresses sperm production. Macky said she would not recommend that, although she has a client with a bull fixed that way that has been successfully used as a teaser for six years.
“When I was still practising I was doing teasers for lease, but also vasectomising a lot of teasers for my clients. I got a lot of my clients into it.
“To me that’s a form of flattery because I know that obviously they value the whole teaser thing. They rate them, they value them and they think they work,” she said.
“But there are always farmers out there -- sharemilkers and farmers who don’t have the ability to or are not allowed to keep bulls -- who don’t have that opportunity. So there’ll always be an opportunity for me to lease to people who can’t do it themselves.”