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By Tars Cheema The AI Women of
While there may still be those who view agriculture as being conservative and traditional, everyone working in the dairy industry has witnessed the steady evolution of the workforce integrating women into every facet of the diverse dairy-serving sectors. It goes well beyond the women who have been milkers, herdspersons and calf raisers for decades – into every professional role including vets, nutritionists, bankers, genetics reps, and even AI technicians.
It was a picture of the decidedly female technician team at WestGen that piqued my interest this past Spring; five of the nine techs at WestGen are women. Women are also part of the tech teams in Quebec where CIAQ employs 37 women and 108 men, and in Ontario where EastGen currently has one woman on their team of 64.
Brian Shaw has been teaching farmers and staff how to inseminate cattle for over 40 years (and is now spanning third generation family members!). “At the beginning, we might have one or two ladies in the courses, but they often make up half or more now.” Over all these years, his observations suggest that women tend to be gentler with the cows and focus more on cleanliness and precise semen handling. “The ladies have smaller arms and hands which is an advantage, but I often need to encourage them to be more assertive with the cervix. They don’t want to hurt the cow,” he explains this apparent gender difference.
The Changing of the Guard
Brian recognizes talent when it stands out in his courses. With his endorsement, Janelle, Kelsey and Samantha eventually made their way into WestGen’s Technician Team.
Janelle can be credited with becoming their first female AI Technician. She started in 2008, after working in the Distribution department filling in for a paternity leave. Experienced with farm work, Janelle took the tech job, because she really preferred being with the cows. “I was mostly well- received by the farm guys, but the few skeptics warmed up quickly especially when my preg stats were really good.”
Natasha was encouraged to take the AI course at 16 by her father. She bred cows on their home farm in Ontario but hadn’t really considered it as a career path. That changed in 2012 when she took a technician job with
EastGen. When her husband wanted to move to BC three years later, she was fortunate to find an opening at WestGen which she successfully interviewed for, while driving to BC in 2015!
Nelliese had been trained by Greenbelt Vet Services and got her experience breeding cows for three years at the home farm (Lorenzetti Acres) near Hope. But with insufficient work to keep her busy full time at home, she took the opportunity to join WestGen’s AI team two years ago. “I don’t feel I’m really a ‘people person’ but I absolutely love what I do, and I really enjoy working with farmers,” she explains.
Kelsey began her career with WestGen in early 2018, first in the office, then added shifts in the Boviteq West barns, but she had her sights firmly fixed on becoming an AI technician from the very beginning. She completed Shaw’s course with flying colours, and by May 2019, her persistence and patience paid off, receiving her tech truck, boots, coveralls and AI gear! “The best part of the job would be not working in an office. We are out and about from farm to farm which gives us a change of scenery throughout the day,” she says.
Samantha had been working as a milker
but was interested in learning new things in the industry. A ride-along with Mike (tech supervisor) lead to her doing the AI course and about a year later, she started in the Boviteq West barns as assistant herdsperson. Eight months after that, she began splitting her time between her new AI tech job and her Boviteq West barn responsibilities. Now, almost a year in, she says, “It’s definitely not your average job! It’s never dull explaining to someone that you’re a bovine reproduction specialist,” she conveys with a grin.
Some of the Challenges
“It was a bit overwhelming for the first few months as you had to get used to finding your way to every different farm from Hope to Delta, get familiar with their systems and get to know each customer,” Nelliese admits.
We all accept that working with cattle has its risks, but guys aren’t often aware of the extra risk women face due to hormones that cows detect and react to. They’ve all faced cows overly-stimulated by hormones and know to be vigilant at all times.
This career path doesn’t come without its challenges. Occasionally comments have been received that wouldn’t likely be directed
at their male colleagues. Fortunately, these rare comments don’t detract from the overall positive work environments they are thrilled to have.
Overwhelmingly, they have established their credibility and competence, but they still get the occasional look of surprise when meeting a new customer. “Some still seem to look at this as a ‘man’s job,’” Samantha suggests. “It can be tough being by yourself in some cases, as farmers aren't always around and you are dealing with stubborn animals,” shares Kelsey.
A Unique Career Path!
Without question, the ladies enjoy the independence they can have to manage their days – “We get to be our own boss for the day,” is the way Natasha puts it. “We get to see so many interesting things across so many different farms,” presents Nelliese. They appreciate the flexibility they can have at times and share the farm calls to suit each one’s particular day. They generally agree that smaller hands/arms make breeding easier, especially on heifers, and suggest that they may be gentler on cows and more detail oriented.
Their largest herd milks around 1000 cows requiring everyday visits. The producer appreciates the consistent good conception rates that a professional team assures them. “It’s a big day when you have to breed 50 cows on Ov-Synch day,” Kelsey adds, making my left arm ache in sympathy. Some herds ask for tech service to cover for holidays or injury, Ov-Synch days or when they simply get too busy. Then there’s beef season. The ladies have all had a few interesting experiences breeding the back-yard beef cow...these are not always our well- mannered dairy cows.
They agree it takes time to learn all the unique expectations of the different farms, and that you must not assume anything! Their camaraderie is apparent. They love their independence but have a solid team spirit evidenced by their boisterous interactions. “We help each other out...”
Samantha sums it up perfectly, “It may not always be the easiest job, but it’s a job to be proud of and WestGen is an amazing company to work for.”
  The WestGen Women Techs love the work and independence in their days. (L-R) Kelsey Murray, Nelliese Klop, Samantha Greenwood and Natasha Tomes. Missing – Janelle Vanderveen (on maternity leave).
One Silver Lining to a Covid Cloud
 By Trish Roberts
Trish has recently taken a teaching position at UBC, following two years as graphic designer for WestGen’s Group of Companies.
As many would agree, the Covid-19 pandemic was nothing we had ever experienced before. It had a major impact on our lives, businesses and our supply chains. The unknown was daunting and the decision in March to move our workstations from the Abbotsford WestGen head office to our individual homes made the pandemic feel real and serious. But I also felt grateful, that we could help protect ourselves, our families, and our customers from the virus and from spreading it. At WestGen we say, “The people are what matter the most,” and that message remained as strong as ever. I believe the WestGen Group of Companies team has never been closer than now. Before the pandemic, it was unusual to hear from team members from the different companies, but with Covid, we would use Zoom video calls and screen shares each day to remain in communication. Now I can put a face to the Laboratory Technician from Bow Valley Genetics and know who services Liquid Nitrogen in Toronto for Cryogen.
In really getting to know each other, it helped create a better culture.
The team also continued to streamline our work and efficiency. For example, in April, the Sales team and Marketing team successfully completed their fastest proofrunyet,allwhileworkingremotely. In addition, communication with our customerswasheightened,especiallyin advance of visits, to ensure safe social interactions while we continued to deliver products and services essential to the business of the dairy farms.
The overall feeling of togetherness and comradery made me feel hopeful and positive during tough times. I had a team that backed me, and I had my team’s back. It truly felt like we were all determined to keep each other and our customers safe. We continue to work hard to ensure the spread of Covid-19 is not increased by our actions. While the situation remains fluid, we are confident that with the actions being taken, we will soon see the benefits and some light at the end of the tunnel.
 A broad cross-section of WestGen staff adapted to virtual collaborations during Covid, providing a message of encouragement in true team style!

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