Manning River District AI Service
Manning River District AI Service
The “AI Man” Some memories of the Manning River district AI service, written by the daughter of Mr George Robert Murdoch.
During the early 1960s, the technology of animal reproduction and herd improvement was big news in the dairying and beef cattle industries. Farmers in the Manning District were early adopters of the practice of artificial insemination (AI) of cattle. The first trained AI technician from this district was Mr George Murdoch, who had owned a Friesian dairy herd at Oxley Island up until 1959, and who went to train in AI techniques at Graham Park, Berry, NSW, a showcase AI breeding centre which was owned and run by the NSW government. There he met several other trainees who would become colleagues of his in future years. Another NSW AI breeding centre was established at Aberdeen in the Hunter Valley, and several other AI technicians who were later based in Taree trained there.
His training completed after some months at Berry, George took up a position with Taree veterinarians, Harry Bruhl and Ian McWatters. Manning district farmers, on a fee for service basis, were now able to breed superb animals because of access to semen from top bulls, some imported to Australia and others bred here. These bulls had wonderful triple- and quadruple-barrelled names, I remember - something that impressed me as a young child - and although it was not until much later that I discovered the techniques for obtaining their semen, I was very impressed that the little glass ampules, which were kept in dry ice inside large cylindrical metal canisters, contained the seed that would lead to beautiful newborn baby calves. I loved seeing a new calf and hearing about its provenance as Dad would talk with a farmer on one of his work visits.
During the early sixties a team of Milk Board employed AI technicians, including my father, was established in Taree. They were firstly based in a wooden building near at the old Peeress milk factory and later moved to a splendid office, equipped with an impressive big sterilising cabinet and sinks, in the sparkling new NSW Milk Board/ Dept Agriculture building in Manning Street. I remember how much I loved to run up and down the classy new staircase at the front of the building (a forbidden activity, done whilst Dad worked cleaning up equipment at the end of his work day), and checking out the loos upstairs (where I once frightened myself by turning on a sanitary incinerator – I had no idea what it was for). I was not the only one who transgressed – one of Dad’s colleagues decided to try making strawberry yoghurt in the new sterilising unit – and it bubbled over into a very hard-to-clean-off sticky mess!
The men who worked as AI technicians based at Taree were an interesting bunch – hard workers, full of camaraderie. They came from far and wide – Jim Norris from Wales, Peter Drake from Essex, Landis Little from Texas, and locals Eddie Welch from Wingham, Kevin “Doc” Whatson and Allan Gallagher. Some of the others whom I remember are Col Keith, Kevin Nebauer, Bill Christiansen, Frank James, Ken Dawes and Doug Biddle. There were many others, and there were AI technicians based at Wauchope and Gloucester as well. These men worked long hours and they knew the all the district roads and tracks and short-cuts. They drove miles and miles, rostered on six days a week (sometimes driving more than a hundred miles in a day) calling on farmers (some of whom were not so happy at times), and dealing with not so happy cows, doing dirty work at the rear end. The number of times I saw my mother soaking and scrubbing Dad’s white work issue overalls, and then ironing pair after pair made a big impression on me. I told her once, when I was a young teenager doing the ironing, that I would never marry a bloke who had to wear white overalls!
Going “on the run” with Dad meant going into the office early in the morning when the AI men would take phone calls from farmers and then work out between them who would do the North Run (up to Heron’s Creek), the South Run (as far as Wang Wauk), the Wingham Run (often including Comboyne and Elands) and the Islands. An agreed upon list was made up for each run, with names and whereabouts of farmers and their cows– all hand written. Dad’s beautiful printing always impressed me. Dad seemed to enjoy having the company of us kids on a Saturday or in school holidays. We were great gate openers and shutters, and we loved sharing a packed lunch (always including Mum’s great cakes and biscuits) sitting with Dad beside a cool little creek off a back road. Dad knew all the great spots – and if we hurried we could even have a quick dip in a creek on a hot day. I loved seeing the farms, the rivers and forests, and the wild flowers – boronia, “bacon and egg” bushes, Christmas bush, and swathes of everlasting daisies in the bush along the Jerusalem Track. Dad was always on the lookout for good places where he could collect a few rocks for the garden on these lunch stops. As time went by, “the few good rocks” brought home often in the car boot amounted to quite a few! Dad would always be looking around the countryside, and sometimes he would come home with an injured magpie or an owl he had noticed near the roadside (stunned by passing cars). Once he even brought home an injured echidna in a hessian bag.
An important pre-requisite for the AI man’s job was getting on with people and animals. Farmers were busy, but were a pretty friendly bunch, keen to have a yarn if they had time. Their dogs were often keen to see the AI man off their property. The long hours on the roads took their toll on the AI men – their vehicles were full of dust and there were flat tyres and breakdowns to deal with, and sometimes there were accidents. Dad had two car accidents – one a head-on collision on a narrow dirt road at Cedar Party, where he was thrown through the front windscreen of the work vehicle – a VW bug, and another as he drove home through Taree west streets in his work car, a Holden 179 sedan.
The running and maintenance of motor vehicles, and the cost of salaries and administration must have made the AI services expensive for the NSW Milk Board, which had a name change to the Dairy Industry Authority at some point, perhaps in the early 1970s. Business was booming at the Taree AI branch, however. My father was proud of their success and profitability, but he lamented the “red tape”. There would always be new edicts from NSW head office – there were new developments in the technology, with dry ice being replaced by liquid nitrogen, and the introduction of new reporting procedures and administrative “improvements”, one of which was an answering machine at the office, which confused many of the farmers who rang up to book in a cow for AI. Some of the recorded messages at the beginning were very funny – and Dad played them back to us, with appropriate censorship, as the other AI fellows laughed helplessly. For some farmers a new fangled answering machine was just too much!
When the NSW Dairy Industry Authority wound up its AI operations in the late 1970s, Dad and the other AI men had to find new jobs. Some retrained for other work, others stayed on in AI and worked for private operators such as Elders. Dad was really upset at the demise of a good team and a good service. He had fought long and hard to keep it operated by the DIA, but to no avail. Until he retired, my father worked for the local business, Ellis and Butler. He trained many local farmers in AI techniques, and he continued to raise cattle at his Oxley Island farm.
(Written for Cundletown Historical Society by Wendy Oldmeadow (nee Murdoch) November 2010)