Alan Richard Sevier (1920-2013) was a truly remarkable man. Largely self-educated, he was a keen and perceptive observer, an avid reader, meticulous recorder and expansive correspondent, an inventive tinkerer and insatiably curious.
In his will, he left a donation to The University of Western Australia’s Institute of Agriculture, if they would accept his trove of notebooks, diaries, reports and correspondence. UWA accepted the offer with alacrity and set up a visiting lectureship in beef cattle, and somehow it fell to me to reveal the secrets of the trove of documents. As readers will note later, despite his best efforts, Alan’s endeavours were largely unrecognised in his home state and it was not at all clear what they might be. This account reveals the dogged persistence and near success of a lone investigator.
Migrating to Mukinbudin
Alan came to WA from England in 1928 as an eight-year-old, when his father, a WW1 veteran, came with his family, his mother and an older brother to join three other brothers at Wilgoyne near Mukinbudin.
The town of Muckenbooding, later Mukenbuddin, had only been surveyed in 1922, principally to support soldier settlements in the area. and the railway arrived in 1923. This was part of the Soldier Settlement Scheme where “governments also saw the opportunity of attracting both Australians and specific groups of allied service personnel to some of the otherwise little inhabited, remote areas of Australia”, and which eventually settled more than 5,000 ex-servicemen, including a number of British migrants who were offered free passage by their Government. This agreement between the British and Australian governments made available £34m to create new settlement areas for British migrants, principally in the form of grants for those taking up land, and as a result “sent scores of inexperienced ex-servicemen out on to these blocks, in what was seen in retrospect in 1933, as a ‘rushed scheme.’”
The family started their migrant life living in tents on their employer’s farm, taking rare trips to Mukinbudin on a horse and cart. Their supplies came from the nearest rail siding at Lake Brown, where there was a store, a bakery, a butcher and a hall. The brothers worked at clearing roads, driving tractors, fencing and general farm work. In 1929 Alan’s father Fred and his uncle Joe took up virgin land and began clearing it with axe and fire, but emus invaded and destroyed their first week crop. Although the brothers were allocated these as returned servicemen, they were never eligible for an advance “due to the composition of the soil”.
Fred had been a motor-cycle mechanic after the war, and this training was useful to him while doing up the old machinery that they had to rely on for 20 years, and presumably the basis for Alan’s mechanical nous and interest. His mother was an only child and must have found the loneliness and living conditions extremely taxing. For their first four years on the farm they lived in tents with an outside fire for cooking; their first wooden house was built 17 years after arrival.
The rainfall in Wilgoyne from 1920 to 1932 varied between 146 and 327 mm, with an average of 220 mm. However the criterion for wheat production at the time, set by the Department of Agriculture, was a minimum of 10 in or 254 mm, so the land was always going to be marginal, although the Director of Agriculture at the time claimed that the settlers would be alright if they “were cautious and always farmed on fallow”.
The daughter of another early Wilgoyne family listed the three essential requirements for farming wheat in Mukinbudin in the 1920s as ‘big heart, big axe, small brain’. However as the author of a history of the Shire points out, “it was circumstances, not lack of wits, that put paid to so many farming adventures.”
In the 1930s and 1940s, the district suffered droughts, grasshopper plagues and poor wheat prices and many relinquished their farms “leaving their properties with little, and their hopes and dreams crushed”. In early 1940, their neighbours the Mondays moved away to improve the prospects of schooling for their children, and the Seviers were able to do a deal with the Agricultural Bank to acquire three adjacent blocks, on which they grazed the sheep that they acquired in 1942.
An adequate water supply for the household and stock was always a problem. In 1964 and again in 1975, Alan had hydrological studies done in the hope of finding satisfactory groundwater. Of the two sites recommended in the first of these, one ran into bedrock and the other soon silted up, and after a less than enthusiastic second report, he relied instead on several dams and carting freshwater.
Life on the Farm (1928-1994)
Life on a barely viable property, with a father suffering from the effects of gassing in France, could not have been easy for Alan. There was a primary school at Wilgoyne from 1924 to 1945, but no high school at Mukinbudin until 1972. So he completed his schooling by correspondence, developing in the process an intense curiosity, an avidity for reading, a methodical nature, and a copperplate writing style to boot. Somehow, he completed a Certificate of diesel mechanics, presumably also by correspondence. He was also renowned for his wizardry with valve and later transistor radios, an interest which lead to his later attempts to detect oestrus in cattle.
He began writing to newspapers at the age of 10 with letters to the Children’s Corner in the Western Mail about their animal and the harvest (3½ bags). Later he would write about his investigative work on the farm, inexplicably under the pseudonym “Willy Pin King”.
It seems likely that he became responsible for the cow herd from the age of 15 as he began a series of notebooks with details of the animals (all named) and their reproductive performance, as well as stock sales and purchases. From 1939, cream was being supplied to a local factory. In 1962, cattle income was £110.
When his parents gave in to his father’s disability and sold three of their six lots at Windyridge and retired to Harvey, Alan took over the remaining three lots, which he named Eastwood, and farmed these until 1996 when he too retired to Harvey. In 1965 he purchased a pedigree Angus bull, two pedigree heifers and a cow and calf to begin his own herd, which by the late 70s he had built up to around 90 beef animals. A report in Muka Matters on his retirement from the farm states “His interest in Angus cattle is well renowned far and wide: he is very willing and helpful passing on his knowledge to other”. “Word soon gets around when one of Alan’s beasts has been slaughtered and is on the butcher’s shelf”.
He was an avid photographer and filmmaker first with a 16 mm cine camera and later a video camera, which he used to record and show local events and places. Sadly much of the stock was lost when he was moved to the aged care facility.
He was active in a number of local organisations including the Wilgoyne Progress Association, Junior Farmers and the Farmers’ Union, the Land Conservation District Committee and the Rural Water Council, and the local Uniting Church. The feeling on his departure from the region was summed up thus: “You will be missed Alan. Harvey’s gain will be Muka’s loss” (Muka Matters October 1995).
During his time at Eastwood his quarters were part of a farm shed with only solar panels as an electricity supply, a kerosene refrigerator and no running hot water, much to the chagrin of his nephew when he came to stay. His retirement home, a comfortable two-bedroom unit in Harvey, must have seemed like luxury after the stringency of his dwelling at Eastwood. Nevertheless, according to the neighbours who took over his farm, he insisted on staying in his old quarters when he visited, necessitating ongoing maintenance and sometimes hurried cleaning. In later life he was moved to an aged care home in Harvey, where he passed away in 2013.
What follows is an account of his investigations into both plants and animals on the property, but more particularly, his search for the elusive magical attractant which would place his “mimic cow” at the forefront of the practice of AI (artificial insemination).
Identification and Cultivation of Native Plant Species (1950s and 60s)
As a keen and observant farmer, Alan was concerned about the plant species best suited to the land on which they were grazing sheep. These lands had apparently received no cultivation or top dressing since the mid-30s, presumably after the droughts and grasshopper infestations of that period. This had left the medium and heavy land dominated by barley grass, while the light land had reverted to native annuals and acacia regrowth. However the uncleared, open salmon gum forest areas contained a dense stand of the saltbush Atriplex stipitata, which provided a valuable short-term grazing refuge for stock in drought or early winter. This observation started his interest in saltbush as a viable perennial grazing plant, while identifying a couple of Swainsona species on the same property stimulated his interest in this species as well.
While on holiday to attend the UWA summer school in 1950, (travelling to Perth by train as noted in the local social pages) he had a chance encounter with Alf Humphreys watering his salt bushes in the Institute of Agriculture garden. This began an association with Alf and others at the Institute, including Lex Parker, John Millington and Reg Moir. He subsequently sent a number of plant specimens to Alf for recognition, including Kochia triptera, Bassias, Salsola kali and Trichinium, which Alf gratefully added to his collection along with the legumes such as Swainsona and Tephrosia purpurea. The sample of S. oliveri was the only one available to Alf at the time and was also of interest to Lex Parker. He thought that the pink pigment in the roots might be leghaemoglobin and indicate the presence of nodular nitrogen fixation, and he asked for more samples for clues about the line of evolution of nodulation of legumes. Nodulation of indigenous Swainsona was subsequently demonstrated by scientists at Murdoch University.
From 1953 to 1963 Alan carried out pot, plot and grazing trials of a wide range of shrubs like saltbush and tree lucerne, vetches, clovers and medics, and grasses like Veldt Grass, Kikuyu, ryegrasses and Phalaris as well as the Swainsona Spp. He carried out germination tests, inoculation, cross-pollination, seed treatments and fertiliser trials. He established an experimental garden near the homestead where he planted out his potted plants and replanted specimens from around the property or sent to him. Visitors to his plots included Alf Humphries, Lex Parker and John Millington.
Extensive notes of his observations were made, including wry comments illustrating the challenges he faced, like “plants on red loam damaged by flooding” “legume ‘X’ still flowering and producing seeds in profusion until destroyed by sheep”, “many plants destroyed by galahs”, “tree lucerne destroyed by rabbits”, and perhaps the most poignant of all, “ the seedlings fell victim to a weeding gardener”.
Later samples of spear grass showing a distinctive rust were also of interest to the Department of Agriculture as the first for the species Stipa arachnopsis. Other grass samples infected with wheat stem rust were also of interest for the potential carry-over of this rust during the summer months, a portent of a disaster soon after when the Sevier wheat crop was decimated by rust after heavy and persistent rain. Unfortunately this also caused a flood through their valley and washed away most of the experimental garden Alan that had maintained at the homestead, particularly for the S. oliveri.
In 1961, Alan wrote to EJ Underwood to express interest in obtaining 10lb of the early-maturing Cyprus Barrel Medic seed being distributed for testing by the UWA Institute of Agriculture. In his reply the Director offered “between 50 and 150lb of seed …. at 5/6d per lb” as they were anxious “it should not be dissipated …. in very small plots”. Over the next two seasons Alan sowed at least 70lb of the seed, reporting favourable comparison with “other plants”, particularly on heavy country, but that “commercial” Barrel Medic showed a greater tendency to stay green longer than the new strain.
In 1964 when his parents sold half of their locations at Windyridge and retired to Harvey, Alan took over the remainder and developed them into a workable farm unit, but this left little time for experiments and with increasing working of the soil, the Swainsona populations were lost. His final conclusion from that work was that S. beasteyana had a great advantage in its over-summering rootstock but was too slow growing and intolerant of grazing to be developed into a pasture plant. Sadly, while he left his extensive notes, there were very few conclusions attached to them.
Induced Lactation and Artificial Insemination (1940s and 50s)
Early farmers in the largely wheat and sheep country of Mukinbudin who wanted access to fresh rather than tinned milk, kept a few house cows. But to maintain lactation in these animals without a bull was difficult. Alan showed his willingness to adapt to new technologies like induced lactation however, when he experimented on a heifer and the house cow Midge, using injections of stilboestrol (£2 per 100 cc, sufficient for two cows) which generally increased milk yield and induced oestrus. These “experiments” continued until his supply of stilboestrol was exhausted.
According to a report in the Western Mail in 1954 about his use of AI (artificial insemination), this was in order “to provide milk for the household at relatively short notice” usually five or six weeks.
Of the alternatives of keeping a bull and trucking a bull or cows in oestrus between properties, he noted that “travel of 108 miles and 12 hours for 2/3 conceptions” or “£60 for a bull plus £40 for feed if yarded, was a high price for 4 to 6 calves” “while a bull allowed to run free soon gets bored with such a small herd and gets into mischief besides being a constant hazard to the person handling the cows”.
It is not surprising then that Alan turned to a simplified form of AI, where one good bull could service a group of farms with benefit to the quality of stock, rather than using the community or circulating ball. Later he owned a bull with a small herd of cows and realised he had the opportunity to carry out his own experiments. He possessed a small but sufficiently powered microscope (200X), had borrowed textbooks from a veterinarian friend who had experimented in AI with the horses, and he had access to “various objects of automotive origin”.
While he achieved success with his own herd with undiluted semen, he experienced difficulties with other owners who could not detect oestrus and expected a cow to be “fixed” with AI at any time.
In the 1940s, Alan was writing to local newspapers under his peusdonym, describing his home-made AI equipment (a small glass syringe enclosed in a celluloid cycle barrel pump). As he was using fresh semen this was clearly part of his effort to avoid carting bulls around. At the time there was no AI Centre for cattle in WA, although one was apparently under consideration by the Department of Agriculture for after the war.
After the Farmers Weekly (April 21, 1949) published a lengthy letter (this time over his real name) about his experience and success with AI, he received some interest from other farmers but none apparently from the Department of Agriculture or University. A subsequent article in the Western Mail in 1954 attracted attention from farmers as far away as King Island. Each enquiry was answered with meticulous details of his experience with AI or induced lactation.
At this stage in his operations he was collecting semen from docile bulls, first at home and later away after disposing of his bull (because he had no response to his offer “to supply semen to anyone who would fetch and use it”), by the deferent duct massage technique; he described this in considerable detail, with diagrams, to correspondents who requested his help. This advice included “a small bull will have too small an anus, and if he is cringing and fearful you may as well go home”.
The semen was inserted soon afterwards into cows intravaginally, after checking its motility, sometimes cycling between the properties he was assisting. He later adopted cervical insemination using a speculum and pipette, although he claimed to have had good results with vaginal insemination, in direct contradiction to overseas practice. He also refers to the feeding of a phosphate supplement to enable conception, presumably because of the known deficiency in WA soils and effects on fertility, but there are no details of the outcome.
He also described the use of an artificial vagina (AV) for use with a decoy cow, steer, younger ball or dummy. His recommendation was to use the massage technique with young bulls and the AV with older or experienced ones.
Methods of Semen Collection (1950s)
In an early attempt to discover a method of collecting semen not requiring the cooperation of the bull, Alan undertook a rectal examination of a very tractable and trained AIS bull which was free in a large yard with a quiet heifer.According to his notes “the bull was quite aware of this but raised no objection although his behaviour was somewhat restrained”!
From his observations of the tonicity of the vesicular seminalis and deferent ducts during erection, mounting, ejaculation and dismounting, in comparison with masturbation responses, he suggested that “manual stimulation can only obtain the occasional overflow of surplus semen and cannot be relied upon for regular or on-demand collection”. Furthermore, he concluded that the ability to obtain semen from an untrained bull would be limited to the setting up of an intense desire reaction and suggested this would be best achieved using a dummy device with an artificial vagina, inducing the attraction through the sense of smell.
Alan had previously investigated the senses important in invoking mating behaviour, using a blindfolded cow in oestrus, in a yard with a non-oestrous cow, and noted that she was able to follow the scent path of the other cow upwind of her. A later test of an oestrus cow with eyes and nose covered showed no mounting behaviour.
A blindfolded young bull with oestrus heifers showed intense interest but no mounting, the bull “apparently being unable to get his bearings without sight and afraid to take the risk.” Masking the nose resulted in aimless movement, while then removing the blindfold resulted in movement to the heifer “but without the scent he quickly became dependent and lost interest”. Removing the nose mask restored interest and service was achieved.
His conclusion that scent alone can trigger the mating impulse was reinforced when the bull attempted to mount objects covered with bags previously rubbed on oestrus cows.
The Mimic Cow (1950s and 60s)
Alan constructed and tested his first “teaser dummy” (later termed “mimic cow”) in 1959, but a rigid back structure made dismounting difficult. However the tests confirmed his belief that scent was the primary attractant although movement in imitation of the “coquettishness “of an oestrus cow reinforced this, and he manipulated the dummy to achieve it. Subsequently, using a mimic cow with a rigid back and sprung rear to make dismounting easier, he investigated the accessory secretions of castrate steers as an attractant, including the use of stilboestrol injections, but found this to induce “maternal calf licking desire” rather than the hoped-for enhancement of mounting behaviour.
He investigated various techniques to harvest secretions from cows in oestrus to improve the attractiveness of the mimic, including a small brush made of tail hair rubbed over the cow’s vulva that lost its attractiveness when exposed to air. He also extracted a sample with methylated spirits and then hot water. Presenting these to a steer and an oestrus female resulted in “a rather disgusted glance at the fatty one” but definite interest in the final one. Alan did not shy away from anthropomorphising his observations.
In the early 60s he produced a third dummy. A salt and alum-pickled skin used as a covering gave variable results, including “deep suspicion”, but a Hereford bull mounted so vigorously that it broke the artificial vagina. Cow urine on the warm operator’s hand proved more attractive to bulls than on the cool hard surface of the dummy, but an artificial bladder filled with cow urine and operated remotely “to offset the embarrassing effect noted above” was of only moderate interest.
Further modifications to the dummy from 1962 to 1964 led Alan to a model with the following special features:
1. rear contoured and surface treated to resemble outline and texture of live animal as closely as possible
2. pneumatic wheels at rear end to allow free movement for teasing bull, and front end which can be lowered to stabilise the device for mounting
3. rubber or pneumatic mountings needed to absorb shocks on mounting and facilitate positioning
4. provision for an odiferous attractant or lure
5. carriage for standard AV or special device with thermostatic temperature control 6
6. back region hinged to allow imitation of lordosis and facilitate dismounting.
These notes were supplemented with detailed drawings and instruction for its construction.
He also considered the provision of an electrical remote control, front drive wheels, and automatic brake to be released for dismounting. Was self-driving to be next?
Tests of naïve bulls confirmed his opinion that an oestrus scent or mimic was essential and a maybe major limitation to its use. In the 1970s, further attempts were made to refine urine from oestrus cows, and from these he suggested that the interest of bulls in urine samples was “proportional to the sex drive of the animal” (method of determination not specified) and inversely proportional to temperament (assessment again unspecified).
Similar mimics were constructed for sheep and goats as illustrated. There are mentions of his mimic sheep being used at both the Agricultural Research Station at Katanning and at Muresk College, but no there is no record of its success, or memory of its use by Muresk staff of the time.
Early attempts to use Sex Scents Attractants (1950s)
Alan surmised that the scents which provided the mounting stimulus were probably excreted from the Bartholin glands (also known as the greater vestibular glands) and attempted, unsuccessfully, to catheterise one. True to his investigative nature he followed this attempt up with a post-mortem examination which confirmed the difficulty of doing so.
He then attempted to collect the secretion using a small speculum, but with limited success as it could inhibit normal oestrus. However, external massage of the glands produced a few drops of secretion, and he used this method to compare secretion in anoestrus cows following mounting (copious) or stilboestrol injection (sparse); he concluded that the glands were under nervous rather than hormonal control. Tying an absorbent pad to an oestrus animal’s tail at the level of the vulva was ineffective, suggesting that the scent evaporates swiftly in open air.
Results of further attempts to collect Bartholin’s gland secretion, using tampons of various materials, were tested by the of a valved nose mask, but were again unsuccessful.
Following the largely negative results of this investigation, he sought advice from Reg Moir, who referred him to Derek Tribe in Melbourne (PhD in animal behaviour) who in turn referred him to the UK Milk Marketing Board (MMB).
In particular he wanted advice on the use of lures, secreted or synthesised, for bulls unused to handling. The response was not particularly helpful, admitting that any beef bulls showing indifference to collection using a teaser steer were not entertained for AI by the MMB. However the Officer responding confirmed Alan’s belief that the oestrus scent comes from the Bartholin’s gland, but felt that the reflex stimulus was more important in their setup. His less than helpful solution was to house the bulls to improve their service behaviour with a teaser, or to use an electro-ejaculator.
The MMB suggested he might use semen from the nearest AI centre and was generally discouraging about the use of free-range bulls for semen collection. Alan replied that transport for the 300 miles involved required an overnight stay in Perth and was not feasible. Furthermore, “the present management is rather hostile to experiments”. At this stage Alan owned no bulls and wanted to make use of one of the few beef herds in the district and he responded to these suggestions with detailed costs of running a bull and details of his considerable experience and inventiveness with AI. He had also made several types of electro-ejaculator himself, with only poor results, and had heard that the results at the AI Centre at Wokalup were similar – lots of accessory fluids but little semen. He had suggested the use of a mobile teaser for their service with uncooperative beef bulls, “but under present management any departure from the standard practice is discouraged”.
The MMB had little further to offer in response, other than suggesting he make use of the AI Centre “only“ 300 miles away!
Filming Mating Behaviour
During the development of the dummy for his AI investigations with cattle, Alan made a 16 mm, 16 frames per second, silent cine film of what he described as “a modified AI technique with cattle, used to overcome the long distances between farms and to collect semen from free-running bulls using a mobile articulated dummy female.”
When offering the film to the Film Library of the Association for Study of Animal behaviour in the UK in 1966, he listed the contents including “showing actual use …. the differing reactions of three young naïve bulls …. a willing worker operating the device to the point of satiation (this took about 30 minutes) …. several natural matings showing clearly how the bull holds the cow. Also shows easier dismounting of bull as cow steps, compared to decoy or dummy techniques.” Technical points included “The faulty thrust given by the black bull on first mount of dummy was caused by insufficient lubrication of A. vagina”.
But after sending the original for viewing, it was returned for a lack of “sufficiently wide behavioural interest”.
The Rumen and Reproductive Performance
When the biennial conference of the Australian Society of Animal Production (ASAP) was held in Perth in 1984, Alan submitted a one-page paper entitled “The Influence of the Rumen on the Male Reproductive System” (Appendix 1). In this he posited that the brevity of mating in ruminant animals (measured in his cine films), compared to the prolonged coupling of the camelids mating in a recumbent position, might be due to “the difficulty of sustaining the voluminous and heavy abdominal contents in a raised position”. He pointed out that the contractions of the internal genital system in the bull which he had observed, effectively pre-loaded the ejaculatory system to respond at any instant the penis enters the vagina in an involuntary thrust. He went on to suggest that “further selection for individual production by bull trials and fat lamb breeding, can only lead to a still higher rate of digestive capacity to total body size unless a greater efficiency of food use can be developed”.
This may be an example of a Reg Moir quote, “You can always trust a farmer’s observations, but seldom his interpretations”. An unkindly editor (me) rejected the paper.
Using Male Castrates
Around the same time, Alan was wanting to investigate the possible residual nervous response of undeveloped genitals in castrates, presumably for use in detecting oestrus in cattle without the risk of unplanned insemination although never stated. From rectal palpation of steers which mounted cows in oestrus, he concluded that orgasm was a frequent occurrence and suggested that neuromuscular pathways for male function develop early, perhaps before birth, and are not inhibited by subsequent castration, although the organs concerned do not develop functional size.
He also described a “spontaneous ‘thrust’ orgasm” in dairy cows close to term. “While they are walking, it appeared that the floppy movements of the swollen vulva stimulated the clitoris”. “The display is rather alarming, the cow’s hind legs buckle almost to the ground, her back arches and the tail is thrown upwards. Within seconds she recovers and walks on. It resembles the movements of a masturbating ball.” Salacious stuff indeed.
Spiral Deviation in the Bull
In 1989, Alan wrote notes on the spiral deviation of the penis in balls, after reviewing his 16 mm cine film of working bulls during the development of his mimic cow. From this he postulated that damage to the subcutaneous muscles that runs between the sheath region and the rib cage might predispose to spiralling. This he suggested, might explain Mike Blockey’s observation that mating dexterity is reduced prior to the onset of corkscrewing.
His anatomical argument is detailed and convincing but there is no indication that he took this any further.
Isolation of Oestrus Scents (1950s-1990s)
Alan’s incentive for this work was the difficulty in maintaining interest in bulls kept in isolation, arguing that a stable attractant produced or copied would be valuable.
His first attempt to collect and stabilise the scents of an oestrus cow involved “a device representing a tractor air cleaner.” A battery-operated vacuum cleaner was used to draw air from skin areas of the cow and pass them through an ice and salt mixture, and the precipitate refrigerated for a few days. However tests with a bull and a cow elicited no unusual reaction.
He then proposed the use of a shortened calorimeter to collect air from a cow’s body, particularly from the tail region, and to pass it through both water and a fat solvent. It is not clear whether this plan came to fruition, but it seems unlikely.
Nevertheless he felt he had sufficient data to hypothesise that in proestrus sufficient scent is given off by the body surface to attract interest from a bull, eg following and/or licking, but mounting only occurred when this was supplemented by secretions from the vulva, particularly from the Bartholin glands. He attempted unsuccessfully to catheterise the duct from these glands and confirmed this difficulty from a dissection study. His further attempts to collect the secretions from the duct opening were unsuccessful and he resorted to collecting a few drops by massaging the skin in the ischial cavity.
From his observations he concluded that the secretion is under neural rather than hormonal control, since non-oestrus cows showed considerable secretion after mounting behaviour while the administration of stilboestrol sufficient to produce low oestrus had little effect.
Attempts to collect the secretions from absorbent pads were ineffective, due he thought, to rapid volatilisation in air.
His results with dairy cows showing the attraction of secretions from the Bartholin glands were not repeatable with Angus beef cattle. He put this down to the methods used which in the former involved collecting secretions from the tip of the vulva and so may have included the minor gland secretions, whereas the samples from Angus cows were collected by inserting tampons deep into the vestibule and withdrawn through the upper part of the vulva with little contact with the minor gland area.
Interest in the mimic cow and bull testing declined in the 1970s and 80s with low beef prices and drought conditions in the wheatbelt which resulted in 1984 in the sale of his purebred herd although his commercial herd was kept on. However the Blockey Test for serving capacity developed in the late 80s annoyed Alan for its cruelty to the cows held in “rape crates”, especially as it gave no indication of semen output or quality, and so he renewed his interest in the mimic device.
A very workable design was developed and shortly before retiring, he published its essential features in a one-page paper in the 1994 ASAP proceedings . In this he summarised the advantages of a mimic female carrying an AV: no live decoy animal required; no proximity for the operator and working animal; no manipulative interference with working animal; no awkward or dangerous positioning for the operator; may be carried out on any level site. He also expressed surprise that use of a mimic was not more widely adopted and surmised that early models may not have met the needs of the working animal. Improvements to conform in size and contour to the pelvic regions of live animals were proposed in order to make dismounting easier. His conclusion was that for cattle a more satisfactory pheromone than those available was needed.
Video copies of his earlier cine film of the mimic’s development, and videos of it in use, were prepared before he left Eastwood in 1994.
Convinced that the key to success of the mimic’s use was a good attractant, he continued his search which was given a boost when he discovered that the cow’s minor vestibular glands appeared to produce a very potent pheromone “to turn him on”. His work now involved visits to dairy farms at milking time, hoping to find animals in oestrus without the presence of a bull which would interfere with sampling.
Investigation of Minor Vestibular Gland Secretions (1990s and 2000s)
In his earlier reading of an anatomy book loaned to him by a veterinarian in Harvey, Alan had noted the existence of the minor vestibular gland in cows but at the time was more interested in the major vestibular glands (Bartholin glands) as a source of attractants for bulls during oestrus. However, he found no reference to them in later anatomy texts, possibly because they are apparently poorly developed in most animals.
However his tests with Bartholin gland secretions proved unreliable and often contradictory depending on the method of collection. He noted that a small brush or cotton bud twisted “just inside the lower commissure of an oestrus cow’s vulva (approx. 50 mm) was very attractive to a bull but soon lost its scent in open air “. If the sample was kept in a sealed bottle, particularly if it was frozen, the scent could be retained.
This inclined him towards the secretions of the minor vestibular glands, but he was unable to locate these in the beef cows then available to him. After retiring to Harvey he was given access to several dairy herds during milking and he observed in the leaner Friesian cows the occasional existence of a duct about “40 to 50 mm anterior of the clitoris “, of variable structure and development. He found that a gloved finger “wiped down through an oestrus cow’s vulva over the minor gland area” always invoked intense interest from a bull, while the same technique with a non-oestrus cow elicited little response.
He believed that the results achieved with his gas analyser provided further evidence.
Developing a Gas Analyser (1996-1999)
Following retirement, Alan worked on a gas analyser, a kitset Alcohol Breath Tester obtained from Oatley Electronics, which used a single heated polymer sensor the resistance of which is lowered in the presence of dilute hydrocarbon gases of various origins. He found it would respond to “alcohol, acetaldehyde, acetic acid, cow urine (oestrus and non-oestrus), banana skin, rock melon skin, but not to watermelon skin and only slightly to aromatic hay” (what the significance was of the fruit skins is not at all clear), but the main use was “to see if it can reliably identify samples of oestrus cow urine against a ‘sniff test’ given by a bull”.
After trying several devices to capture the volatiles from urine for testing, he opted for one using a fish tank aerator.
Collection was simple: “rubbing the skin of the cow just below the vulva with an up and down motion” induced a reflex contraction of a full bladder. He used this method with dairy cows at milking time where the stage of oestrus was rarely known. Nevertheless, he concluded that urine from oestrus cows read 7-8 on the meter compared to that of anoestrous cow samples at 4-5, “but the variation between samples was very wide, dependent on temperature and density of samples”.
In 1999 he modified the detector by putting the the sensor into a plastic vial, attached to a meter by a three-core lead and inserted into the cow’s vestibule. This was smaller than the previous model and much easier to handle.
Using this instrument he took both internal and external readings on both beef and dairy animals. External readings (vulval skin) were generally 1 to 2 while insertion of the probe elicited readings of 4 to 6. The stained, cotton sensor-cover from these animals aroused interest from other oestrus animals and a stag (part castrate bull). However readings in anoestrous cows were similar. Although still convinced of the importance of the minor vestibular glands, he continued to test extracts of urine from oestrus cows both with the gas sensor and with bulls. However although a flehmen response was often elicited and occasionally further interest, the lack of consistency in both behaviour and meter reading gave little chance of correlating the two. Furthermore, hot weather conditions seem to reduce the presence of volatile agents. In March 1997 he had attempted to obtain some of the chemicals which had been identified in a paper as eliciting a sexual response in bulls supplied by the Beef Officer at Agriculture WA in Harvey . His intention clearly was to create rather than isolate an attractant, which he would test on the herds of his friendly dairy farmers. Dr Wayne Best of the Chemistry Centre advised him of possible suppliers, and he put in an order for three of them (valerophenone, heptanol and acetophenone). It is not clear whether he obtained these as there are no records of their use. Interestingly however, one of these compounds (acetophenone) was subsequently found in some of the samples he submitted for analysis.
Thermal Oestroscope (1997-98)
Some of the dairy farmers who Alan visited after retiring insisted that cows in oestrus were “warmer” than their anoestrus mates, and he thought he might be able to develop a reliable oestrus detector by measuring the amount of heat given off by a cow “at a distance”.
After infra-red detector diodes proved insufficiently sensitive, he obtained a couple of textbooks on the systems behind these devices and discovered that they responded to a different waveband range to “live things”.
He then turned to heat sensitive resistors which he found gave a slow but useful response. A heat detection device, which he termed his “thermal oestroscope”, was constructed using a torch case with the bulb replaced by resistors purchased from Dick Smith’s, glass replaced with by a piece of plastic film from a magazine mailing bag, a sensor placed behind the reflector to correct for variations in ambient temperature, an amplifier, and a meter with knob control for zeroing. The device rated the heat radiated rather than temperature, but Heath Robinson would have been delighted. Unfortunately there are no photographs of the device.
Several models of the same basic design followed this, with the final design attached to the retaining rail of a rotary dairy which scanned the rear of the cows at ischial height as they passed. Anoestrus cows gave readings of 3 to 4 and oestrus cows just one point higher, and other causes of variation such as mastitis and stage of oestrus made conclusions difficult. However, in a high producing dairy herd he found a normal rating was 4 to 6 and in active oestrus animals 8, which he attributed to the muscular efforts involved in mounting. Therefore normal cows mounting other cows gave false positive results.
He later purchased from Dick Smith’s a commercial, non-contact IR thermometer with a digital readout in °C by one-degree steps. However the differences were too small and the normal variation too great for it to be of use in oestrus detection.
Chemistry Centre Analyses (2000-2003)
In May of 2000, a phone call to Dr Best confirmed that the Chemistry Centre could identify the constituents of swab samples using gas chromatography and occasionally mass spectrophotometry. Over the next three years, Alan sent more than 20 samples from swabs of the minor vestibular gland area, and later urine samples as well, in a further attempt to isolate attractants and produce an artificial scent. In response, he received detailed results, conclusions and suggestions.
Two of the first samples, from the same cow, displayed traces of acetophenone, 4-methyl phenol, and 3/4 ethyl phenol, showing some similarity to the results of Klemm and others he had investigated earlier. Dr Best then supplied solutions of these volatiles in ethanol for investigation as possible agents, but this required evaporation of the alcohol before application in a solution, with possible loss of the volatile components. Of the samples of these prepared separately and in combination, only one (4-methyl phenol with a trace of acetophenone) elicited any attraction and that was just an occasional flehman response.
Few of the later samples showed the same compounds however, and Best suggested that volatilisation from the swabs after collection, or before analysis when the stems of the cotton wool buds being used were removed, may have resulted in their loss through oxidation. A lack of volatile compounds in tests during the summer Alan attributed to heat stress reducing pheromone output.
Less volatile compounds such as cholesterol and fatty acid esters were quite common in the samples but unlikely to be attractants, plus the occasional plant compound like coumarin or other feed components like lupanine, and on one occasion even caffeine. While this puzzled Best, as it was not present in urine sent in the same coffee jars, it more likely came from tea-bag ties around a bundle of cotton wool replacing the buds. These were placed in the vicinity of the opening of the minor vestibular glands with self-closing blunt forceps.
Best had suggested looking at urine samples as well in the expectation of greater quantities of the volatile components. While they too often contained active plant compounds like lupanine and flavone, presumably reflecting the diets offered, they did contain large amounts of the phenolics found in some of the early swab samples, and may explain their occasional appearance in the swabs. However, in the last of the sets tested (July 2002), there were several unidentified peaks in a swab sample which did not appear in the corresponding urine sample, but this lone case was apparently insufficient to retain Alan’s interest in further analysis as no more samples were sent.
He continued his observations of oestrus behaviour and mating, including further examples of penile spiralling, and attempts to use fresh swabs and urine samples as attractants. His last recorded attempts were in early 2005, when N Ruby Skywalker produced 1 ml of “very active semen”. However, another bull changed from “some interest” to “a more aggressive stance towards the mimic”, and “as Paddy was in a rather vulnerable position between the bull and a post, it was decided to conclude the trial”. A rather inglorious end to Alan’s meritorious efforts perhaps, but a reminder of the complexity of the task he had set himself.
Reception by the Scientific Community
Apart from his work on native pasture plants, which was a rich source of new species for plant scientists at UWA, Alan’s work appeared to arouse little interest in Australia and more particularly in Western Australia. In a 1992 letter to Eric Taylor at Murdoch University, he refers to an active AI Centre in WA in the 50s (presumably Wokalup), and how he hoped that he could solve difficulties with his mimic cow so that they might adopt its use. However “senior Dept management vetoed the idea” and the matter was dropped.
In 1961 Alan sought publication for his experiments in the Australian Veterinary Journal, but he was again referred to Derek Tribe, for advice on inclusion in the Journal of Animal Behaviour. Tribe in turn recommended he send a technical letter to the Veterinary Record, another dead end.
The following year he again approached the AI Centre at Wokalup, offering to provide a small-scale model and a brief 16 mm film for inspection. The Superintendent of Dairying replied that “the method used there is up to the best world standard. Consequently you will understand that what you have to offer would need to be most outstanding before it would merit consideration”.
In 1995 he contacted Dr Albert Barth, a theriogenologist with special interest in bull fertility, at the University of Saskatchewan. Dr Barth had discerned increasing concern that electro-ejaculation was inhumane and expressed his interest in Alan’s mechanical cow. He was considering the incorporation of an oestrus heifer into a dummy which would allow collection from multiple bulls without harm to the heifer. Alan replied with extensive advice from his experience with his mimic cow, but Barth’s subsequent publications were directed at research to reduce the stress response to electroejaculation, or alternatives to it, and there is no mention of the use of a dummy.
The 1994 ASAP paper also aroused interest from New Zealand where Lindsay Matthews of the Animal Behaviour and Welfare Research Centre at Ruakura expressed his interest in conducting behavioural research “to assist with the further development of your models”. Alan replied with further details of his studies but again there is no evidence that this was followed up.
Some interest was raised about the pheromone work through Phil Barrett-Lennard at Agriculture WA, with Graeme Martin offering to help design a program of experimentation to follow up Alan’s anecdotal evidence. As usual, Alan replied at length to this letter but there was insufficient interest or justification for a follow up.
Alan was not easily deterred or overawed, however. Later that year he wrote to the New Scientist after reading an article “Mad calves fuel BSE fears” and suggested the possibility of oral-nasal transmission of BSE. He wondered if, in heavily infected cows, the agent might “leak down” the olfactory nerves and pass to the offspring through the licking and nuzzling postpartum. The letter was not published.
For several years he had been listing articles in the New Scientist about “Artificial Noses”, looking for technological solutions to his problem of detecting attractants. One to catch his attention was entitled “Electronic sniffer stalks famous fungus”. The famous fungus was of course the truffle and the sniffer a collaboration between UMIST and a French team in Toulouse. Alan wrote to the authors to ask if the sniffer might be reprogrammed to detect the scent of oestrus cows. However he received no response, and there no is evidence of an electronic sniffer ever replacing truffle dogs!
He also contacted the Institute of Environment and Biology at the Victoria Institute of Technology with a similar inquiry about an inert polymer which absorbed odours like a sponge . The authors’ responded that they were primarily interested in low molecular weight volatiles compared to the “relatively high molecular weight compounds such as the hormones etc present in the attractive scent of cows”. As some of the volatile compounds isolated in the samples analysed by the Chemistry Centre were also of low molecular weight, this argument seems somewhat specious. But these possibilities became irrelevant once he had ascertained that the Chemistry Centre could do the analyses for him.
Alan’s last attempt to arouse interest in his work (apart from this legacy), appears to be a letter to the WA branch of ASAP which resulted in a brief report in its Newsletter No 2, 2003, albeit with his name spelt incorrectly.
Alan’s lengthy and solo endeavours in the field of cattle reproduction bring to mind the early naturalists who found time among their duties to make detailed observations and formulate theories, often misguided but sometimes highly perceptive.
He was insatiably curious, an avid and eclectic reader, including of anatomy textbooks, the New Scientist and electronic manuals, and a highly competent handyman. He wrote lengthy letters to anyone seeking his help or in a position to help him. He kept meticulous records of his “experiments” and copies of everything he wrote or received.
Sadly for him, there were laboratories of qualified staff with sophisticated technologies operating in parallel. Possibly these were occasionally too dismissive of the efforts of a lone and part-time practitioner to accept his ideas, or maybe he was working in an area of much greater complexity than he was able to appreciate.
In any case he was right to nudge UWA into investigating his work, and it has been both a pleasure and a privilege to write his story.
I am grateful to Gail Rijnhart and Jim Mondy for their helpful recollections, and his nephew Redmond Sevier for his memories and photographs of Alan.