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CLIENT NEWS: CRV Ambreed AI technician marks 62 years working in dairy genetics

Don Shaw, 79, has been surrounded by dairy cows his entire life. And, in his role as an artificial insemination (AI) technician for CRV Ambreed, he’s been responsible for bringing a fair few calves into the world.

Raised on an Ohaupo farm, Mr Shaw is a fourth generation New Zealand dairy farmer. For the past 62 years he’s also worked as an AI technician, inseminating an estimated 250,000 cows in that time.

At 17, Mr Shaw started his artificial breeding (AB) training with South Auckland Herd Improvement.

“You weren’t supposed to train until you were 18, but I was going to turn 18 by the time the AB season started, so I was able to train,” recalls Mr Shaw, who lives in Te Awamutu.

“It was quite different back then compared to today. We went to stay in the Grand Hotel in Hood Street for two weeks, and every morning we were picked up by the supervisor and we’d go to the town milk herds in the Hamilton area,” says Mr Shaw. “One of the other trainees in my group was Sir Dryden Spring, who went on to become the chairman of the New Zealand Dairy Board, so I was in good company.”

Compared with the size of some dairy herds today, which can be upwards of 2000 cows, herds in the mid-1950s were much smaller. “Most weren’t any bigger than 100 to 120 cows,” says Mr Shaw. “My own father would have only had about 90 cows.”

Visiting so many smaller farms, with three other trainees, meant that young Mr Shaw only had the chance to inseminate one or two cows at each farm. “Today they go to a school in a freezing works in Morrinsville, and there get to inseminate 100 to 120 cows over five days,” says Mr Shaw. “When I trained I never had 120 cows to practice on.”

Later, Mr Shaw worked with South Auckland Herd Improvement for two years then did private work as an independent AI technician, before spending more than 40 years working at CRV Ambreed – as both a technician and sales consultant. 

It’s been a busy role, but a rewarding one. “I’ve got a passion for genetics, and for animals,” says Mr Shaw.

CRV Ambreed National AI Manager Cara O’Connor says Mr Shaw is an institution in the AI industry who is happy to share his knowledge and skills with others.

Three years ago, in 2014, Mr Shaw retired from CRV Ambreed as one of its top-ranking sales consultants, based in the ‘Waikato West’ region (wider Te Awamutu area).

“I remember my first year I sold only 275 straws, and by my last year of working there I was selling 30,000,” says Mr Shaw. “When the news came out that I was going to retire, I heard it was the talk of the LIC sales consultants’ meeting,” chuckles Mr Shaw.

Mr Shaw says the secret to his success was building strong relationships with farming clients. “I was on the phone at night and I spoke to clients or visited them at least five times a year,” says Mr Shaw. “Even now I keep in touch with a lot of former clients, and go and visit them.”

Mr Shaw has seen many changes to the industry over the years. “Health and safety standards are stricter now,” says Mr Shaw, who once badly injured his knee on the job, thanks to a kick from a cow. “It probably wouldn’t happen nowadays, as there is a bar behind the cow’s back legs.”

The tools of the trade have evolved. “We had rubber gloves and you’d use soap to get a lather on them, as a lubricant. Today it’s entirely different. You have plastic gloves, obstetric lubricant and you use thin, stainless steel pistolettes. The old plastic pipettes we used to use were half as big again. I look back and think, how did I impregnate cows with them? It was a lot more difficult then.”

Mr Shaw says frozen semen has become more widely available and gives farmers more choice about herd genetics. “When I first started there was little of it,” says Mr Shaw.

Farmers are becoming more strategic about improving their herd through genetics. “Today, there is more focus on Breeding Worth (BW) and the more ‘thinking’ farmers – who want to see improvement in udders and production – can choose sires from several cow genetics companies,” says Mr Shaw. “I think animal evaluation could take more interest in educating farmers on the value of TOP (Traits Other than Production). BW isn’t everything. I tend to focus on New Zealand Merit Index (NZMI), where the traits are part of the index.”

Mr Shaw says more women are joining the profession as AI technicians. “Women often make good technicians. They tend to have an empathy with animals, and often have smaller hands and wrists, which makes it more comfortable for the cow,” says Mr Shaw.

He has advice for others who want to work as an AI technician. “You don’t want to be in a rush; just be quiet, calm and get the job done. If you are thinking about wanting to do AB, you need good hand skills – like a mechanic or someone who is good with woodwork; and you need to be gentle with the cows.”

CRV Ambreed has a team of 200 trained and certified AI technicians working across the country. Collectively, they inseminate around 500,000 cows a year. CRV Ambreed also offers AI Training Schools throughout New Zealand.

Although Mr Shaw has retired as a CRV Ambreed sales consultant, he’s still involved as an AI technician. In October and November he will work on four Waikato farms, inseminating cows.

When he’s not doing AI, Mr Shaw is kept busy working as a TOP (Traits Other than Production) inspector, sire-proving heifers and inspecting older cows for Jersey NZ members, as well as consulting for several local farming clients.

Mr Shaw enjoys giving back to the agricultural industry and wider community.

In 1996 Don and his wife Lynne were made a lifetime member of Jersey NZ, an honour that he says was both “unexpected” and “meant a lot”.

They have been involved with supporting the youth members of Jersey NZ, and set up a scholarship fund for tertiary education in 1992 that is still going. They also organised development seminars for Jersey NZ youth members that ran for seven years, and have been active in encouraging the next generation into dairy farming.

“I like to think I’ve been a giving person, rather than taking,” says Mr Shaw. “My reward has been seeing people achieve their potential.”

When he’s not busy, Mr Shaw enjoys spending time with his wife Lynne and their family, including six grandchildren and four great-grandchildren.