For the past 17 years, Ange Wilson has spent her early mornings reaching into the nether regions of hundreds of cows.
“I didn’t grow up thinking I would be an artificial insemination technician,” she said.
“It’s nerve wracking to start with, because you’re putting your hand up the cow’s anus … but once you get used to it, it’s fine,” she told ABC Melbourne Afternoons.
Despite spending her mornings at the odorous end of cows on heat, Ms Wilson emanates the spirit of someone who loves her job.
“You’re making a baby calf. I think that’s amazing,” she said.
Headbutted and kicked — all part of the job
In 2019, Ms Wilson struck out and started her own business, Southern Land Bovine Services.
Since then, she’s been taking on young women who want to learn the trade and are drawn to having a female mentor.
“I would certainly hire young males, but probably young women hear about me through word of mouth and have been approaching me,” she said.
The nature of the job means that you can be headbutted, kicked and mounted by cows on heat, but those are the odd occasions.
“I would kick somebody too, if they were coming at me with a big glove!” Ms Wilson said.
“It is a mental game, inseminating cows, it can be quite tiring.
“Cows are really cool, they are very much like humans,” she said.
“When cows are bulling, they are a bit hormonal and emotional like us.
“They can hold their milk. They can be stroppy if they are usually friendly.
“But we love cows. It’s a seven-days-a-week job in all kinds of weather. If you didn’t love cows, you wouldn’t be in the industry,” she said.
The polite way to inseminate a cow
Ms Wilson is mindful that the artificial insemination procedure is highly invasive.
“We’re as gentle as possible,” Ms Wilson said.
“Before you go after a cow, you always put your hand on her back, to let her know you’re there.
“In the procedure you lift the tail, which relaxes the sphincter area, and you essentially push in.
“The rectal wall is quite thin and so you put your hand in anally and you’re scooping up the cervix, and then the inseminator goes in vaginally.
“The inseminator holds a straw of semen and you’re trying to drop the semen into the body of her cervix.”
Unlikely perks of the job
Ms Wilson said she could inseminate hundreds of cows, across several farms, in a morning.
“Some days I start at 4:00am but I’m home by 8:00am and my working day is done,” she said.
Her job also brings her into the heart of farming communities.
“There’s a camaraderie about it, you’re a team,” Ms Wilson said.
“You’re all in it together, you could be out in the pouring rain or snow, and we’ve just got to get these cows inseminated.
“You are helping people, because dealing with farmers, they go through bloomin’ tough times,” she said.
“This year has been great and there have been lots of happy farmers and lots of laughs.
“But there have been years when I’ve been extremely concerned and been almost like a counsellor.”
Much of Ms Wilson’s work is in south-west Victoria, in the pocket thick with dairies, near towns like Port Campbell, Timboon and Nullawarre.
These and many other south-west Victorian communities were hit hard by the dairy crisis, which came to a head in 2016 after retrospective cuts to farmgate milk prices left many dairy farmers without an income.
“Some farmers don’t see people for days on end,” Ms Wilson said.
Arriving hours before dawn, Ms Wilson tries to bring some cheer.
“If you can have a smile, or if you can have one joke of the day, it’s great, because you can tell that joke over and over again on all the different farms.