Herman: A visit to where art meets frozen bull semen

Today let’s gather at the unlikely intersection of two things I know little about — art and frozen bull semen.

Elgin Breeding Service is a leader in its field, its field being the collection of and freezing of bull semen. “A family tradition of quality since 1954,” the company proudly notes. It’s nice when families have traditions.

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EBS was founded in 1954 by Dr. W.H. Cardwell, and the company proudly notes it “has led the way in establishing custom semen collection in the United States.”

But it was art, not frozen bull semen, that recently brought me to EBS. As part of a remodeling project, Brad Cardwell, current president and son of the founder, wanted a mural in the reception area where folks enter to inquire about frozen bull semen. He turned to Elgin artist Tom Besson, who has been doing sign painting and other work for EBS since the late 1970s and who has done several murals around Elgin.

Besson and Cardwell are an entertaining odd couple, friendly enough to jab at each other about their political differences. I hate to stereotype, but in a photo, you’d have no trouble guessing which is an artist and which dabbles in the world of frozen bull semen.

“They said they wanted something to tell the history of their organization,” Besson said of the assignment he got from EBS. “So it started with one concept sketch that was about three feet by four feet to get their approval and from there I moved to bringing the drawing to scale.”

To help, Cardwell gave Besson a DVD telling the company’s story. Besson said his wife wandered in while he was watching the video and asked, “Are you looking at cow porn again?”

Besson’s finished work is on three panels measuring a total of 7 feet by 12 feet. The mural was completed at Besson’s studio and then installed at EBS.

The artwork, in Besson’s distinctive style — “all of my work has a tendency to look like the wind is blowing through it” — has three major components. On the left is founder W.H. Cardwell (wearing his Aggie ring). In the center is a woman at a microscope. And the right side has several elements, including a vat full of frozen bull semen.

“I love seeing it through the front door,” Brad Cardwell said as he and Besson stood at the mural. “The first thing you see is these colors and my dad.”

Cardwell has known Besson for many years, Cardwell said, dating back to when the artist did lettering on EBS trucks, “which in the long run turned out to be kind of silly, because if the wife or the office girls are, say, riding in Austin with a pickup that says ‘Elgin Breeding Service’ on the side, they get some strange looks.”

The mural is indeed striking, and I mean that in a positive way. So that’s the art part of the story. Now let’s talk about frozen bull semen, a topic about which Cardwell retains a sense of humor (as if there’s a choice).

“It’s not just a process of getting some semen and putting it in the freezer,” he told me pre-tour. “It’s much more complicated than that.”

I would’ve thought that, if I’d ever thought about frozen bull semen.

EBS started on Main Street in Elgin in what is now a Mexican restaurant. The elder Cardwell, who developed the process and grew the business into a major force in the bull semen industry, died a decade ago at age 80.

Brad Cardwell can recite key stats about the business, including: “Each straw contains 60 million live sperm cells, pre-freeze.” We’re talking deep, deep freeze in liquid nitrogen — 360 degrees below zero.

“There’s more than enough in here to breed every cow in Texas,” Cardwell proudly said as we stood among the vats that hold the special straws that hold the frozen product. (And if it’s OK with you I’m just going to call it “product” from here on in.) “Some of this semen is from back when I was in first grade.”

So there’s that note of nostalgia.

The business model is simple: Bull owners send their animals to EBS, which procures the product and stores it until the bull owner needs it. Some also is sold to third parties who, I guess, could be cattle owners or just hobbyists.

So far, I’ve kind of glossed over the product procurement procedure, something I got to see bullside at EBS. It involves two bulls (more on that in a minute), a device known in the industry as an A.V. — “A” is for artificial; “V” is for a female part — and employees touted on the EBS website as “trained and experienced personnel.”

Having seen the product procurement process, I can attest this is no place for untrained and inexperienced personnel. Go to mystatesman.com to see my carefully edited video of the process. And if you watch it alone, be prepared with an answer should anyone walk in and say, “Are you looking at cow porn again?” 

Cardwell said the secret is getting bulls ready for the big moment. The most challenging part is loading them up and hauling them into town for dinner and a movie. No, he didn’t say that (and nobody pensively smokes a cigarette post-product procurement, so get your mind out of the gutter, you weirdo).

The whole thing goes very quickly if the prep is properly done. Often it just takes the proper opening line, though “What’s your sign?” always ends with “Taurus.” (My thanks to local journalist John Moritz for that high-brow input.)

Cardwell said procurement takes “just moments if we’ve trained the bull properly.”

“You’ve got to realize these bulls come in here and they don’t know if we’re going to barbecue them or what the hell is going on,” he noted.

Perhaps you’ve been on dates like that.

And it’s all about safety first. The goal, Cardwell said, is for the bull “to be calm enough to mount for us and have someone literally get under there while a 2,500-pound bull is up in the air. They have to reach a certain calmness level.

“Our crew is very good at taming the savage beast, if you will,” he said. 

Now we must talk about a male animal’s willingness to, shall we say, seek any port in a storm. No females are used in this process because of the potential for disease merely by having them on the premises, Cardwell said. “So you’ve got a little bit of a hurdle to jump over there.”

EBS capitalizes on the fact that “field bulls will jump each other” when feeling amorous, Cardwell said. “Let’s let Romero build this AV and we’ll watch him jump this bull.”

“Jump this bull” is industry lingo for product procurement. And then we saw nature in all its glorious wonder. The action was over in mere seconds and included the EBS employee getting in there at the key moment to capture product, which he proudly displayed to me in a tableau forever burned into my head.

“Another satisfied customer,” I said to Cardwell, who agreed and is understandably proud of what I had just seen.

“You don’t hear anybody hollering and bull whips and people raising hell here. We do this quietly. We let it be the bull’s idea,” he said, discounting the possibility that some bull’s idea might include hollering and bull whips and people raising hell.

I asked Cardwell what you’d ask him: What do you tell folks you do for a living?

“In all candor, I shy away from it,” he said. “If they ask me what I do, I tell them my sister and I run a family-owned cattle operation. I try to leave it at that.

“If they go to picking I say, ‘Alright, you asked, so I’m going to tell you a little bit more about it.’ And if they kind of smirk, I say, ‘Yeah, hell — it’s funny as hell. We laugh all the way to the bank.’”

And then he said some other things about his business, things I can’t put in the newspaper, even if you signed above.

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