50 years and counting

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The first time I heard the letter combination of DHIA was in Sherry Newell’s office at WJON radio station during June Dairy Month in 1985. I was the new hire to the station’s farm department. I came from an Illinois beef farm and moved to the heart of dairy country in Minnesota. I was facing a steep learning curve. Sherry called me to her office to chat. She said if I was going to date Mark Schmitt, I better learn how to read a DHIA test sheet. Her advice turned out to be prophetic.
Sherry almost giggled as she recalled a childhood memory of racing her siblings to the mail-box at the end of the driveway a few days after the tester had been in their barn. I could see Sherry tracing the lines of her favorite cows to study the latest test results and records in progress as she slowly walked back to the house. Many years later, I would witness my own children walking back from the mailbox enthralled with the latest test results as they traced the lines of their favorite cows. Today, nobody races to the mailbox. I just click on the latest report to download the in-formation to my computer. It is amazing how things have evolved over what feels like just a few years. Despite all the changes, there is also a sense of consistency and dependability.
Mark was serving on the Benton County DHIA board when we were first married. I can’t remember how many testers came through our barn in those early years. The turnaround was on the verge of frustrating. We would get a tester trained to where and how information was to be hand printed in our DHIA book, and then they would decide they didn’t like the job or the hours. Eventually the board found two perfect guys to do the job of collecting information and milk samples. Ron and Bruce have been testing for Benton County for over 35 years each. Bruce eventually became our tester and a part of our family.
Our connection with DHIA started 50 years ago when Mark’s dad began testing his cows. We have tested cows almost every month since then, and I have every test sheet to boot. I don’t know why I have kept all the printouts and individual cow pages of special cows, but it is nice to flip through the old books like a photo album bringing back memories of where these favorite girls stood or the list of their progeny throughout our farm’s history.
In the beginning, we tested both morning and night. We received little notice of when the tester would show up in our yard to test cows, but there was always a general time of the month when we could expect a visit. It was thought that this unannounced testing helped protect the validity of the test results. Farmers weren’t able to juggle milking time or milking order to help boost a cow’s production. We depended upon the accuracy of our production records to support the value and sale of our registered animals. Really, if that was happening, it only hurt the dairyman in the long run.
I remember hearing about one tester showing up in a farmer’s yard to test cows one night. The only problem was that the farmer was at a family event and planned to take the evening off. Needless to say, his plans were turned upside down.
We would have an unannounced state tester appear in our yard every once in a while. It was policy to have spot checks when a cow was producing “too much” milk or a herd was testing “too high.” The state would send a tester in right behind the county tester to verify the accuracy of the previous tests. We had nothing to hide, but it meant extra work and added fees. We would also have to put the state tester up for the night as well as feed him supper and breakfast just to prove our county test results were accurate and true.
It is amazing how many things have changed with testing cows, and yet, there is still the same goal of providing accurate production records to help dairymen make informed management decisions based on facts. The integrity of the records is at the heart of testing.
Changes in DHIA are a reflection of the changes in the dairy industry. There are fewer farmers and fewer testers but more animals on individual farms. There is no more morning and evening testing. Production records are based on a single milking. There are no more spot checks or unannounced testing. When our landline rings in the evening at the beginning of the month, we know Bruce is calling to schedule a morning test.
Why am I remembering all this history with DHIA? Bruce was here last week for our monthly morning test. Once all the samples were collected, the date entered and reports printed, we headed to the house for breakfast. Mark and Austin finished up the feeding while I started whip-ping up breakfast and Bruce set the table. He is such a part of our family that he knows our kitchen two-step. He pulls down the plates, grabs some glasses, pulls out the drawer for silverware and sets everything out on the counter. He even knows where the jams and syrups are to top off the pancakes.
Bruce is such a part of our dairy routine that it was quite a shock when he quietly said in passing that he was stepping back. His body couldn’t handle testing the large herds any more. He is nearing the magic age of Medicare and thought he would give up the big herds but still help test the smaller herds. At one time our herd was considered a large herd with 100 cows. Now we’re just a little herd and the right size to keep Bruce coming every month to test our cows and eat breakfast with the family.    
    As their four children pursue dairy careers off the family farm, Natalie and Mark are starting a new adventure of milking registered Holsteins just because they like good cows on their farm north of Rice, Minnesota.

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