Friday, September 23, 2016

CRI's Commitment to Employee Enrichment and Training

In today’s job market, attracting and keeping quality employees is paramount. I belong to a couple of dairy groups on Facebook and one of the most talked about topics is finding and retaining a workforce. Yesterday as I went to get a quick lunch, I happened to notice the abundance of help wanted signs in almost every business in town. So how can we compete? What do we need to do as baby boomers retire and millennials enter the job market?

I wish I had the answer for you, unfortunately I think it may require a combination of a lot of factors. One thing Cooperative Resources International (CRI) is committed to is an extensive employee enrichment and training initiative.  

I worked in a career for 13 years where my bosses threw professional development at us because it was required. I think if you would have asked them, they would have told you they were doing a great job with employee enrichment and training, therefore we were all engaged in our careers. They would have been wrong.

A quality employee enrichment and training program needs to be ongoing.

My old job put a big, fat check mark next to the ongoing thing. In fact, many times I felt like I was in a professional development workshop more than I was at my desk working. But don’t fall into the “been there, done that” mentality either. Just because you offered your employees a couple of training opportunities doesn’t mean you have a free pass to stop with the enrichment.

CRI began a program called REACH in 2011. REACH is a series of professional development
courses and projects to expand employees’ knowledge of the cooperative, its subsidiaries and the industry we serve, provide networking opportunities, and develop leadership and problem solving skills. To date, 385 employees have taken advantage of one or more of the levels of REACH.

A quality employee enrichment and training program needs to be employee driven.

When was the last time you asked your employees what they enjoy most about their job? Have you asked them if there are aspects of the farm or company they would like to learn more about? Would they like to try to take on a new responsibility? If you allow employees the opportunity to provide feedback about their job, they will become more engaged, as they are now in the driver’s seat. Now, I realize someone is still needed to do the dirty, mundane and often unsatisfying tasks, but if allowed to dream a little, those other jobs don’t seem so bad.

While the REACH curriculum is maintained by CRI management, it is constantly being updated based on past participant feedback. Projects that are extensively researched by REACH students come from employee and management identified opportunities and issues within the company.

Once an employee has completed some REACH training, he or she is also eligible for the new CRI Global Enrichment Program. The win-win nature of this program allows CRI employees to share their specific skill sets with those in our industry across the world on a specific international project. The employee then comes back to the U.S. with new enthusiasm and knowledge to help CRI and our members and customers prosper.

In addition to REACH and Global Enrichment, CRI employees are encouraged to look for other job-specific professional development opportunities. Many find professional organizations to join to again help with networking in the industry, as well as to learn new ways to accomplish their jobs.

Having a well-trained, engaged workforce doesn’t just happen; it takes work. CRI recognizes the importance of great employees and is committed to their professional growth so they can continue to deliver excellence, innovation and value to you, our members and customers.

So, what do you do to find and keep employees? Does your employer do an especially good job with making you feel valued through training and opportunities? We would love to hear about it in the comments section below!

Friday, September 16, 2016

Do More Than Pregnancy Check

By Sarah Thorson, Beef Marketing and Education Manager, Genex

For most beef producers, high on the fall to-do list is pregnancy checking the herd (and crossing your fingers most, if not all, are pregnant). It’s an important herd management step because, as we all know, culling the open females can lead to significant savings at the feed pile – and I think everyone can agree we want our operations to be as profitable and cost-effective as possible. Along with pregnancy detection, there is another important observation you should make while the pregnant female is in the chute – body condition score (BCS).

Feeding a female into a higher BCS at calving is a losing proposition, limited by the cow’s ability to consume enough to overcome her energy deficit and the size of your feed bill. That is why body condition scoring at pregnancy check is such an important tool. At pregnancy check cows are in mid-gestation, which is one of their lowest maintenance energy requirement times, therefore it is the most economical time to add body condition. (It’s a win-win for everyone.)

The quandary of waiting until calving to observe body condition is that a female in her early post-partum period is experiencing some of the highest maintenance energy requirements of her life (you’d have ridiculously low energy too if you were providing nutrients to another growing being)! This is especially true for 2-year-olds who not only work hard to produce milk to raise their calf but are still growing themselves.

Research tells us body condition score at calving has one of the greatest impacts on rebreeding performance. For a cow to maintain a 365-day calving interval, she must be rebred by 82 days post-calving. Cows that calve at a BCS 3 or 4, on average, exhibit first estrus at approximately 80 days post-calving, making it very difficult to maintain a one-year calving interval. On the other hand, females that calve at a BCS 5 or 6 average 55 days to first heat post-calving.1 That’s a 25-day difference, and we all know time is money!

At pregnancy check you want the majority of cows in BCS 5 or 6 for optimal reproductive performance.

Once you have BCS score information, it is important to use it. If pasture or pen space is available, it is a good idea to group cattle by body condition. (A little organization goes a long way and will save you future headaches.) You can then manage thin females to gain condition and manage other females to maintain body condition in the most efficient manner possible.

The importance of body condition score and its role in the rebreeding efficiency of your herd should not be overlooked. After all, the success of your next breeding season is largely determined before this year’s calf crop hits the ground! 

1 Rasby, Rick. Body Condition Scoring Your Beef Cow Herd. University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Learning Modules.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

The Art of Manufacturing Bull Semen

Thawing a semen straw for cattle artificial inseminationDay in and day out, you grab your tweezers, open the tank, pluck out an A.I. semen straw and place it in the water bath (or wrap it in a paper towel and put it in your pocket). But, did you ever think what it took to get that A.I. straw to your tank? As Glen Gilbert, Genex Vice President of Production, explains, it all starts in the factory …

A bull basically has a sperm factory that never takes a break. It constantly produces sperm 24 hours a day, seven days a week. It does not take time off for holidays or bad weather, although weather can impact how the factory performs. A bull’s health, his body condition, nutritional status, age and his environment can impact the factory too.

The Semen Assembly Line
The “assembly line” production process takes about 10 weeks to produce a sperm capable of fertilizing an egg. It’s a complex process in which cells divide to reduce their chromosomes (amount of DNA) by half, dramatically change their shape and grow a tail capable of motion. Any imperfection in the process, such as breaks in the strands of DNA, results in a defective sperm that won’t be fertile.
Bull semen on an assembly line
Semen production is a 10-week "assembly line" process.

A Climate Controlled Factory
The thermostat in the factory is set to maintain the temperature at 4 degrees below body temperature. If the factory runs hotter, the sperm is defective. To help ensure quality sperm, males are equipped with a sophisticated “air conditioner” that works to maintain the proper temperature. Features of that air conditioner include a large number of sweat glands along the surface of the bull’s scrotum, the ability to raise or lower the factory depending on the outside temperature and a system where warm arteriole blood coming from the body is cooled at the top of the scrotum by cooler blood returning from the testis. In over-conditioned bulls, fat deposits in the top of the scrotum interfere with this cooling mechanism and result in a factory that is too warm.

Of course, things such as hot summer temperatures or illness with fever can overwhelm the factory’s cooling capacity and result in defective sperm too. Even brief heat blasts lasting only a few days can impair normal semen production for several months. In other words, a bull with “good quality” semen one day can have a change in quality the following day.

Bull semen in front of a fan showing the temperature control of the semen factory or scrotum

The sperm factory has a sophisticated
"air conditioner" to maintain proper temps.
Sperm Quality Characteristics
Sperm need to be able to swim, have an adequate energy supply, be able to move up through the uterus into the oviduct, attach to the lining of the oviduct and wait for a signal from the female that her ova will soon be passing by. Then, the sperm needs to have enough energy to pull away from the lining of the oviduct by becoming hyper-motile, possess the necessary membrane structure that can attach to the ova and have the enzymes necessary to digest its way through the covering of the egg. Finally, the sperm needs to have the right complement of DNA that will combine with the ova’s DNA to create an embryo. Once inside, its DNA must be fully functional and not have any lethal genetic defects.

Bull semen in a swimming pool showing sperm need to be able to swim for effective cattle artificial insemination

For effective cattle artificial insemination,
sperm need to be able to swim.
Every bull will produce some sperm that have flaws. Some sperm can’t swim. Some don’t have adequate energy stored. Some have faulty membranes, and some don’t have properly packaged DNA. Any one of these flaws causes that individual sperm to be useless. However, as long as enough of the entire population has the necessary traits, a bull’s semen will be fertile when deposited at the right time and the right place in a female’s reproductive tract.

Collectively these necessary physical characteristics of a population of sperm are referred to as “semen quality.” Each collection arriving in a Genex laboratory is screened to ensure it has sufficient numbers of sperm with those quality characteristics. If an ejaculate does not have adequate quality, it ends up outside in the dumpster.

Production Protocols
Collections that pass the initial screening tests proceed to the next steps - adding preservation media and freezing. Following the protocols precisely for preservation and freezing is important in order to yield an adequate number of normal sperm per straw after freezing and because each part of the process (preservation media, how its added, ratio of semen to extension media, rate of temp change, etc.) can influence others.

Quality Control Commitment
From the time a bull leaves his stall to go to the collection arena until his semen comes out of the freezer no less than 56 distinct steps are carefully carried out and monitored. Throughout the process, Genex production staff work by the motto, “If there’s any doubt, throw it out.”

Genex bull semen is evaluated under a microscope

At Genex, sperm quality is checked again and again.
Staff follow a "if there's any doubt, throw it out" motto.
That motto and the laboratory staff’s work doesn’t end when the semen is frozen in liquid nitrogen. Instead, straws from each batch are thawed and again inspected in the laboratory to ensure an adequate number of quality sperm survived the freezing process.

Image of warm water thawing a bull semen straw
The batches that are deemed “good quality” are sent off to Genex reps around the country who deliver the semen straws to your farm. So tomorrow, while that A.I. semen straw is thawing in warm water for at least 40 seconds (or in your pocket for 2-3 minutes), think about what it took to get that straw to your tank.