Goode grew up on a ranch in Damon, where he now runs an artificial insemination business. He travels the country collecting DNA for a U.S. Department of Agriculture research project on mad cow disease.
Back in the seventies, my dad learned to artificially inseminate cows by reading a book and using trial and error. There were no schools for AI, so you just had to figure it out. He was actually very good at it, and he would help other ranchers breed their cattle too. I learned all of it from him, and I tell you, the first thousand are the hardest. It takes a certain touch to inseminate an animal.
Sometimes I go to other people’s facilities, but most of the time customers bring their animals to us. We’ve marketed ourselves with the saying “Drop them off open and pick them up bred.” We tag the cows, take notes on what bulls the owner wants them bred to, and get to work. There are four things that have to happen with AI: You have to have good semen, a fertile cow, catch the timing just right, and put the semen in the right place. Three out of those four we can do; the only thing we can’t completely control is the cow being fertile. But by making sure that the three things are done properly, we’ve been very successful. We have a lot of people come back.
The benefit of AI is that you have access to the top herd sires, or bulls with the most desirable traits. Let’s say a bull comes along that possesses all the best characteristics—this only happens once in a while. There’s no way you could take him around to breed every ranch in Texas, so instead we collect his semen and distribute those traits with AI. You can upgrade your herd very quickly using the semen of a $1 million bull, say, instead of depending on the $5,000 bull in your pasture. AI also allows you to match certain bulls with females that need more of a particular trait. I spend a lot of time helping customers match animals. If you have a cow that is light in the flank, for example, I can breed her to a bull that is heavy in the flank and hope that the dominant trait takes over and gives you what you’re looking for.
I am a perfectionist when it comes to breeding, and there is a certain timing involved. For instance, with a Beefmaster cow, you breed her twelve hours after she comes into standing heat. Well, if she comes into heat at three o’clock in the afternoon, that means that at three in the morning, Randy Goode is in the pen behind the cow. Some inseminators will breed a bunch of cows together or do it early so they don’t have to stay up late, but I’m very specific. There are times when I’ve had forty or fifty head coming into heat 2 hours apart for 24 hours straight. Oh, my God, it’s horrible. You take a catnap and then get back out there.
I’ll usually breed in the fall and then again in the spring, from March to May. The Bos indicus, or Brahman, breeds can be bred into the summer, but temperature plays a big part in South Texas, and with most cattle you can’t just breed anytime you want. It has to be cooler to work. The age of a heifer also matters, because the first time you breed a cow she is normally still growing. You want her to be at her maturity when she has her calf so that she’s not producing milk, feeding the calf, and trying to grow at the same time.
I have an electronic system that tells me when an animal is in heat. There’s a patch that’s glued to her tail head, on her back, and it has a little sensor. When my spotter bull gets up to mount her, like he’s going to breed her, he pushes a button that sends a signal to my office, and from the number and length of these signals I can tell when she stood in heat, for how long, and how many times. A spotter bull is a bull whose penis has been rerouted to one side so he can’t actually get into the cow. He’s one of the best tools there is for detecting heat in an animal, because I can’t just tell by looking at her in the pasture. I’ll bring the female in, heat the semen in a special container, and insert the straw of semen into her cervix, putting my other hand in her rectum to use as a guide. I have been elbow deep in so many cows—you can’t have this much fun at home.
Those spotter bulls, they have their own ideas and personalities. We name ours, of course. Sometimes these bulls are known as gomer bulls, so a while ago I had a Romer and a Gomer. They were buddies. Every once in a while they would fight, but I was breeding so many animals that I needed at least two spotters. One day I had just taken in two little Angus calves, and both of them came into heat at the same time. Romer was out in the pasture with them. They were in heat all night long, and he spotted them the entire time. I could see on my computer where he had worked at it all night. Then, all of a sudden, he’d just stopped. I went out to see what was going on, and poor Romer had had a heart attack. It was just a little too much for him.
Recently I’ve been working with the USDA on a project to eradicate mad cow disease, which means I haven’t been doing as much AI. About three years ago, a USDA representative from Clay Center, Nebraska, contacted me for help locating some Beefmaster cattle for his research, and soon I started helping him collect DNA from other breeds. I’ve now traveled all over the country looking at cattle; one year I pulled hair samples from cows’ tails all the way from Florida to Washington State. I’ve found everything from miniature zebu to Watusi, and we’ve increased the USDA’s catalog by some forty breeds. At one point I visited this place in South Texas that has purebred Indu Brazil, and I liked them so much I bought one. It’s one of the dangers of doing this DNA job—bringing back strays. I’ve purchased a buffalo too.
I’ll never leave AI entirely, though. It certainly has its hazards: One time I was breeding a cow—I had already gotten about halfway into her—when she jumped, reared up, and flipped over backward onto me. She was on the wild side, a little spicy. She almost broke my arm. But I just love the work. I mean, I could be a schoolteacher, but this is so much better. And cows don’t talk back.