June 12, 2023 at 3:53 p.m.
Over 1.1 million scored
DeBruin, of Lake Mills, retired last month, closing a career that allowed her to travel to nearly every state, create lasting connections with the breeders she encountered and evaluate over 1.1 million cows.
When she started her career, DeBruin was only the second female to work in that capacity for the Holstein Association USA, starting six months after the first.
“In those early days, there were always some people who didn’t think classifying was a job a woman should be doing, but it was rarely the farmers that expressed that concern,” DeBruin said.
Being hired as a classifier was not the first time in her dairy career that DeBruin had been among the female pioneers.
As a dairy science student studying at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she was one of very few female students in the department, and she was an early member of the campus organization that became known as the Association of Women in Agriculture.
After graduation, she took a job mating cows with what was then known as Tri-State Breeders in Westby and then spent four years as an agriculture teacher at a time when she was one of only five female ag teachers in the state.
“I had always wanted to classify cows,” DeBruin said. “It was a natural fit for me with my passion for judging and studying dairy science, but when I graduated, Holstein (Association USA) didn’t hire females in that capacity.”
DeBruin was raised on her family’s registered Brown Swiss and grade Holstein farm, and it was there that her interest in evaluating dairy cattle was born.
“My family was always very competitive as far as evaluating dairy cattle,” DeBruin said. “There was never a shortage of good discussion among us when it came to cows and what they should look like, and my parents never treated us girls any differently in that aspect from our brothers.”
DeBruin was on a team that won the National 4-H Dairy Cattle Judging Contest and traveled to Europe to compete. She also spent many years coaching youth dairy judging teams.
That background as a Brown Swiss breeder laid the foundation for how DeBruin looked at dairy cattle.
“I was always known as being very critical of feet and legs,” DeBruin said.
Over the years of evaluating cows, DeBruin has watched as the industry shifted toward efficiency.
“Now we score as many cows as we did back then with less than half the staff we had back then,” DeBruin said. “When I started, it was pretty standard that you would only do two or three smaller tiestall herds a day. Now you might only do one farm a day, but herd sizes have grown so that you’re looking at so many more cows.”
DeBruin said that 38 years ago, classification was more of a social event for the farmers. Cows were clipped and washed, the neighbors would come over, and the visit typically ended in the farmhouse, eating a lunch while stamping scores onto registration papers.
“Times have changed; people don’t spend as much time preparing cattle any more, and roughly less than 5% of the cows we see are clipped and fitted, and that is fine,” DeBruin said. “Although that is nice, it is important to be able to evaluate cows in their working environment.”
DeBruin said her biggest advice is to put any preparation efforts into doing things that might change how the classifier sees a cow, such as trimming feet.
“If a cow’s toes are long and she’s sitting back on her heels, I have to evaluate her that way, and that will affect her final score,” she said. “We ask that the udders are clipped in the winter and that you have all of your paperwork prepared.”
DeBruin’s greatest memories involve families that were just launching their interest in improving the functional type in their herds, typically because the next generation was expressing an interest in showing, breeding and developing their own herds and cow families.
“I always liked having a good discussion with the farmers about their cows and what I saw and how they could potentially improve their herd,” DeBruin said. “I never minded when the kids stayed home from school and asked questions. That is how we all learn.”
As a classification staff, continuing education and self-evaluation were important parts of the position. Classifiers met for trainings on a regular basis and received quarterly reports breaking down their work in statistical terms.
“You would be able to use those reports to see how you were seeing each linear breakdown and if your scores and ranges were consistent with the other classifiers,” DeBruin said. “Having consistency among classifiers in the program is important. We all have a certain kind of cow we like, but you really need to let the linear lead you to the score.”
Having scored over 1.1 million cows makes DeBruin the association’s all-time leading classifier for number of cows evaluated. DeBruin said she had guessed she was somewhere around the million mark but was surprised to hear the final total.
“I never minded flying and going to California and Texas,” DeBruin said. “Some of the classifiers didn’t like to fly, so I have been doing those large herds for a long time.”
DeBruin scored cows in every state except Alabama, New Jersey, Alaska and Hawaii.
“One area I always loved going to was Lynden, Washington,” she said. “It was one of the prettiest places on earth, and there were so many fabulous cows there. Now most of the area is devoted to raspberry and blueberry farming.”
One of the most treacherous experiences was scoring cows in North Dakota during the Halloween blizzard of 1991. DeBruin said she has also scored cattle on several prison farms where she has been escorted by armed guards.
Having seen so many cows, DeBruin said she has many she has admired that she has a difficult time picking out a favorite.
“I put Snow-N Denises Dellia up for 95; she was such a tremendous cow,” DeBruin said. “My first committee cow was Queen N-Rosa-Line G-V Tidy owned by Gil-Tex Holsteins in California.”
As for what the future holds, DeBruin said for the time being, her garden is holding her attention, and she will continue to serve as the superintendent of the International Post-Secondary Dairy Cattle Judging Contest at World Dairy Expo.
“I really love to garden, so I’m enjoying that right now,” DeBruin said. “But, my family gives me until about the end of June before I’m going stir crazy and looking for some type of part-time job.”
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