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From 1950 to present: The evolution of ‘dairy character’

Michael Osmundson Published on 17 January 2014

In 1920, the world began changing faster than ever before. We had just left the horse and buggy for the car, and we were starting to use machines for heavy lifting, moving dirt and building skyscrapers.

Research was starting to speed up as well, and with that research came the discovery of how to use oil. We also discovered that we could make many different things from oil that would make our lives easier, faster, more efficient or less expensive. New information was the sign of the times.

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But, down on the farm, things moved more slowly. Sure, some farmers had tractors, but not many of them. If they had a tractor, it was only one – usually a small model with less than 40 horsepower. Farming did not change much until well into the 1950s.

Now, for those of you that were not here in 1950, a cow was a cow back then. Sure, you had a few purebred breeders that were trying to improve their respective breeds, but they lacked the proper tools to change things quickly.

There were very few milk-recording programs, little data about the cows or bulls, A.I. was just beginning, there were no breeders clubs, very little or no classifications for type and very little for production information.

The production information contained nothing like it does today, not even close. Milk weights from cows and bull daughters were only recorded for a day or maybe a week. But each dairyman knew his cows inside and out. He learned to think like a cow and understand why she limped if it was not because of any obvious injury.

Cows were also different in 1950 compared to the cows of today, and so was their environment, feed supply, types of feed, milk level, body style and size, their housing and the information about them.

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This brings us to the topic of the 1950s Holstein cow. She was a big, strong, thick-boned cow that could outmilk any other breed and sometimes pull a plow while doing it.

She had an extremely wide muzzle, a wide front end with a deep body, walked downhill, had a sloped rump which was wide enough for her calf to go through without a lot of difficulties, was moderate in stature – and she could kick the crud out of you whenever she wanted to and did so at different times.

That Holstein cow would walk home from the pasture with her front foot leaving the ground and her rear foot moving forward, always landing exactly where the front foot had been just a second ago. The reason I know this is because my father made me bring home the cows when I was 5 years old, and I enjoyed watching different things along the way.

And the reason it landed in exactly the same spot was because the cow had the perfect slope to the rump, along with her thurl joint being exactly where it was supposed to be located, halfway between the hooks and pins at a 45-degree angle. Some of the Holstein bulls in A.I. weighed as much as 3,400 pounds, and they were very, very manly. Today’s Holstein bulls look more like the 1950s Holstein heifers, not bulls.

Why and how did the cows evolve from then until now? What influenced the change? Part of the change came because once in a while, a Holstein cow did not milk enough or had a hard calving. However, the main reason she evolved was not because of a need to change her conformation. It was our perceived picture of beauty and the show ring.

I remember in the late 1950s and early 1960s, when judges started selecting the first-place cows and heifers with 60 percent of the placement on a new term called “dairy character.” All of the dairymen at our local county fair were very unhappy, to say the least.

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But that certain clique of judges united and stayed strong with their message that all cows needed to be more “dairy,” until all of the people showing cows decided that the only way to win was to have this extremely narrow, frail-in-appearance cow that “looked” dairy.

The next fad that came along was the big, wide boxcar rump that was supposed to be level but tended to be slightly high in the pins of the cow. To offset the appearance of high pins, it was thought that a tall front end looked nice, so the next champion had a tall front end with a boxcar rump.

Once this change occurred, getting a cow to come into heat and get pregnant became harder, and giving birth became even more difficult to do successfully. This became such a problem that it gave birth to the gathering of calving ease data for the breed.

Because of the influence of show ring judging, your Holstein cow no longer has the rear footsteps landing where the front foot had been when walking at a normal pace. She now misses the target area by about 8 inches.

The result of a tall front end, a boxcar rump, slightly high pin bones and a thurl joint that has been moved more toward the rear is a shorter footstep, thus making her foot wear down on the heel instead of the toes. This presents another problem.

Because the 1950s cow had the heavy-boned, strong frame, she could take care of herself most of the time. If she had any type of sickness, she had a body reserve of muscle and fat on which to fall back. If she milked too hard, she could take fat off her back, convert it into energy and still come into heat.

In my book, this is called genetic fat and bone mass because the fat was put there by a breeding program, not by feed. This heavy-boned, strong cow with muscles also could stand up correctly. The cow from the 1950s stood up with her rear end first, not the front end first. Now, she starts rocking her body until she somehow gets to her feet.

Today’s Holstein cow is extremely tall, slender and, in my opinion, frail. She doesn’t come into heat easily, nor does she breed back very quickly. She needs her feet trimmed often, a high-energy diet, top management and occasional band-aids. She is a calving nightmare, and despite all of this, we keep showing her because she “looks” dairy.

I do not like the animal activist movement or government intervention, but we all know that they are both coming after our industry and will bring to light new questions.

For example, consider the following: How long will it take to get cows to come into heat in the absence of reproductive hormones? What if a mandated third-party animal welfare verification score depends on the ratio of milking string cows to hospital cows?

What if you cannot use some medicines or antibiotics? What if consumers see more undercover pictures of down cows than of show ring cows? What if activists get a law passed that says you cannot trim hooves?

The government can come up with some really far-fetched ideas, so don’t tell me these things can’t happen.

Perhaps the easiest way to relate the breed choice decision that a dairyman faces today is to relate it to something else on the dairy he might have strong brand loyalty toward – a tractor.

If you had a tractor like today’s cow from your breed of choice, would you keep it? Would you buy another one of the same brand? Or would you look for one that had more of the features you desired like a wide front end, live PTO, power steering or a cab? PD

Mike Osmundson


Michael Osmundson

General Manager
Creative Genetics of California Inc.

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