Thursday, February 2, 2012

Breeding cattle and horses in Provence

Last night my partner and I had dinner with friends, Jean and Joelle, who live in countryside near the little village of Le Thor. During the meal (endives au jambon) my partner mentioned that at the end of February when we go to Paris to stay with his kids for a few days we're going to spend a day at the Salon d'Agriculture. This enormous agricultural fair sees French farmers, fishermen, oil, wine and honey producers and heaven knows how many other agriculteurs bringing their animals and products together under one roof in Paris for a week.

Joelle is a documentary film producer and mentioned that she'd once made a film at the Salon d'Agriculture, on breeding Charolais cattle. We got on to the topic of breeding cattle and horses and my partner recounted an incident he saw at a stud farm near his home. The boss, from the Delgado family, well known in Provence for breeding, raising and selling horses, was in a field preparing to help a stallion inseminate a mare. My partner and a few others were standing around chatting. A young girl - a stagiaire or trainee - was with Delgado to assist the insemination. My partner recounted how the boss took the stallion's erection in his hands to guide it into the mare and after a few seconds turned to the trainee and said: "Here. Take over. Take it and guide it." The teenaged girl, already embarassed, blushed beetroot and took the thing tentatively with her fingertips. "Tiens bien!" cried the boss. "Grab a hold of it." She did, amongst gales of laughter from the onlookers, and successfully guided the stallion into the mare.

This prompted a comment from Jean that the stallion was lucky: he got to mate with the mare. It's quite common on stud farms to use any old horse to 'warm the mare up'. These unfortunate horses used for foreplay often get kicked in the face or stomach by unrecepetive mares and once they've taken the blows and the mare becomes willing, they're led away and the far more valuable stallion is brought forward to finish the work of mating.

Which led to a discussion of artificial insemination in horse and cattle breeding. Lots of stud farms in Provence (as elsewhere) use AI, meaning that the mare and stallion never get a chance to meet, let alone mate naturally. Joelle then told a story about filming Charolais cattle at the Salon d'Agriculture. She was commissioned to make a film on breeding Charolais and what she quickly discovered was that not only is artificial insemination used, but so are surrogate mothers. The cows are inseminated and the resulting fertilised eggs are extracted from their uteruses and implanted in ordinary cows, ie. less valuable cows. The idea is that if an inexpensive cow has medical problems during the pregnancy, or dies giving birth, the loss is less than if a Charolaise is damaged or dies. Even if consecutive pregnancies were to go well in a Charolaise, the reasoning is that there's still less wear and tear if a mere porteuse or surrogate is used. Pregnancy is avoided and the Charolaise is simply used to supply fertilised eggs, giving calves their prized Charolais DNA.

In one conversation we went from the stallion assisted in mating in a relatively natural way to cattle reproduction in which not only do the bull and cow never meet but their calves are bred in 3rd-party uteruses and subsequently fed by machines. Which is reproduction about as alienated as you can get. Strange what the farming community gets up to when there are significant amounts of money at stake.

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  1. Is it possible to have artificial insemination with animals because as far as I know it is only for human.

  2. Yep, it's possible and done routinely with some breeds of animal. Nothing to it apprently - the sperm's extracted and injected into the female. Same as for humans.