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Gomer, the romance detective

You can find some great information out there on the old Information Superhighway. It's a great way to spread knowledge around. The same can be said for embarrassment, I suppose.

In a recent discussion with fellow beef producers, one of them asked if any of us had experience with the use of a gomer bull for heat detection. (It's not known whether the animal was named after Gomer Pyle or not.) A gomer bull is a bull that has been vasectomized. He can still identify cows in heat, but he can’t successfully breed. (See the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension Service Web site for more details.)

I have used almost every method of heat detection in my A.I. program over the years. This summer will mark my 29th season of A.I., so I speak from a small degree of experience. I started using A.I. by watching my cows as they came in heat, writing down their tag numbers, and then hiring someone else to breed them. Visual heat detection, when done properly, takes a fair amount of time each day. Having some kind of aid would be a big plus, but I wasn't ready to invest in the spendy Heat Watch system to put garage-door-opener-sized transmitters on my cows just yet. Heat mount detectors like the Kamar would be okay, but I had too many trees that my cows could rub against and knock them off. The Bovine Beacon, with its glow-in-the-dark system, was not yet available. What was available not long after my departure from Iowa State University was the gomer bull technology. I discussed the idea with a couple of people and came to the conclusion that what I needed was an animal that could be used for several seasons and would eat like a supermodel, be physically capable of the tasks at hand, and be a low-risk health project.

Adding all of those things together, I came up with what seemed like a good solution. I would create my own gomer bull from within the herd by using A.I. to prevent the introduction of any pathogens from other herds of unknown health status. I decided that many of the large-framed exotic breeds originally from Europe would not create the Kate Moss appetite and frame size I was looking for in my gomer bull. He needed to eat cheaply for the other 49 weeks of the year when he was not serving his intended purpose, and he didn't need to shop at Omar's For The Obese & Gangly Gentleman. His attitude needed to be good, so a Jersey bull was out of the question, even though frame size was in the Jersey's favor in a big way.

All things considered, the total solution seemed obvious to me: Invest in some Texas Longhorn product! I'd have a bull with the agility and stamina to make it from one end of Texas to the other and still be in good shape. He would never get obscenely obese on me like a normal beef breed would. Based on the steaks I had eaten from the southern part of the U.S., he would not waste any energy input laying down marbling, and he would still be in good shape at age 25 . . . like some of those steaks seemed to be.

So I went out on a limb and ordered two units of Texas Longhorn product from an A.I. supplier. Those two units were put into cows and, luck of the Irish being what it is, I ended up with one male calf to show for it! The agility thing showed up right away, because the calf hit the ground around 10:00 that morning and it was all I could do by 11:00 to catch him and get a tag in him!

The best-laid plans are not hatched overnight. Let's do a little math here. You decide you want to create your own gomer bull, so you order the product to do it and then put that product into a cow. There's Year 1. Then you get a calf and wait for it to be born and spend time with its mother. There's Year 2. Then you wait for it to be ready for use. There's Year 3. Then you discover that your excellent choice possesses the genetics to get it from its birth in Winnemucca to market at the stockyards in Kansas City via a long cattle drive walk of multiple years without getting too big. Next thing you know, you're looking at Year 4 before it's go time for Tex.

When that year finally rolled around, my favorite vet came out to the farm to give Tex his vasectomy. The procedure ended up being much easier than I expected. We put a halter on Tex, gave him a sedative, and waited for him to go into nap mode right there in the bedding before doing the procedure. Surgery and recovery time went well. Tex was up and at ’em in no time.

Then came the true test. I got my heifers synchronized and ready for A.I. Tex was fitted with a chin ball marker. We filled it with yellow ink and turned him in with the heifers. The first heifer to come in heat was a solid black heifer, so it was easy to see that the yellow ink was effective. She basically looked like a bumble bee when Tex was finished.

That's when the first of Tex's problems showed up. The heifer looked like a bumble bee. All the others looked like lumps of coal. Several of them were in heat, but Tex only had eyes for the first one. Tex, as it turned out, was not a player. Nope, Tex wanted a deep, meaningful, monogamous, long-term relationship. I wanted Warren Beatty and I got Ward Cleaver.

So I moved Tex to another pen and went back to watching for heats myself with a pen and a notebook. For the next several mornings in a row, I discovered Tex's other shortcoming. Because of his intense loyalty and monogamy, Tex would hop over gates to get back in with that first heifer. Being agile and fleet of foot, Tex had no problem getting himself off the ground to clear a gate gazelle-style. Being a bit on the short side, though, his vertical leap was more George Constanza-like than, say, Michael Jordan-like. Tex would get himself halfway over the gate and then lose momentum. It was like he was hitting a brick wall — with Sir Isaac Newton's face on it — midway through his leap. Tex would come crashing down 58% of the way through his jump. My lovely steel gate then had a big V pattern in the center and Tex had enough of himself over the gate to throw the fulcrum balance in his favor, thereby dragging the rest of himself over the gate. At a little more than a hundred bucks per gate, and a different gate each day, his newest maneuver was costing me big money in short order. Tex was promptly retired.

Remember Tex's small frame size and Kate Moss appetite? They sell bulls by the pound, not by pedigree or personality value. Tex did not generate a lot of salvage value to offset his lifetime of expenditures. Lesson learned.

Then it was on to Plan B. You could take a non-pregnant cow and give her some testosterone injections to turn her into a juiced-up male full of machismo. She would then wear the chin ball marker and spot all of the cows in heat for you. A suitable candidate was found and hopped up on testosterone. Sure enough, Rosie went from mildly dainty to destructive in a matter of days. She developed a defensive lineman's neck like a bull. She pawed the ground like a bull. She growled two octaves lower like a bull . . . crossed with a grizzly. She threw her head around and acted tough like a bull. She became difficult to herd with an ATV like a bull. She did NOT develop an attraction for cows like a bull, though. No interest in them whatsoever.

Plan B, another strikeout.

Rosie was promptly loaded up and marketed. She generated a far larger check than Tex did. She also generated a far larger amount of fear, respect and amazement at the sale barn than Tex did.

A few years later, I tried the Heat Watch system as part of a research project with ISU, along with a technological device to measure the electroconductivity of the reproductive tract of female bovine. Then I used the Bovine Beacons (see “We’ll leave the light on for you”). Last year, I went with a new system to breed the whole herd in a single day without any heat detection at all. It appears to be the best system so far.

Even so, a fellow producer summed up my gomer experience fairly well. "I'm sorry, but a lovesick Longhorn and a lesbian cow. That there's a funny story, I don't care who ya are!"

Duly noted. It's my job to give people what they want. Although sometimes it would be nice to have to make it up.

Guy No. 2

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