Darin Zoellner gives dairy cattle fitting tips to Micah Leonard. Micah, 14, lives in Armour, S.D., and has been showing dairy cattle for five years.
Darin Zoellner gives dairy cattle fitting tips to Micah Leonard. Micah, 14, lives in Armour, S.D., and has been showing dairy cattle for five years. PHOTO BY JERRY NELSON

    HURON, S.D. – The 2018 South Dakota State Fair was a memorable event for the Zoellner family.
    Along with numerous prizes, the Zoellners brought home the grand champion award for three different breeds during this year’s fair. Two of their animals were awarded the titles of junior supreme champion and senior supreme champion in the open class dairy division.
     “I showed my first cow at the South Dakota State Fair in 1953 when I was a 9-year-old 4-H club member,” said Alan Zoellner, patriarch of the Zoellner family.  
    Alan and his wife, Sharon, have been married for 44 years.
     “We registered our farm as Al-Shar Holsteins shortly after we got married,” Alan said. “I guess the boys have decided to carry it on.”
     The Zoellner dairy operation includes Alan and Sharon’s sons, Troy and Darin. Troy has two sons, Jordan, 13, and Riley, 10. Darin and his wife, Anne, have three sons, Walker, 10, Parker, 6, and Carter, 3.
     Troy and Darin both attended South Dakota State University, in Brookings, S.D., where they each earned degrees in dairy production.      
     “When the boys told me they wanted to come back to the farm after college I just couldn’t say no,” Alan said.
     The Zoellner family has spent decades developing the genetics of their show cattle.
    “My dad milked about a dozen cows when I was growing up,” Alan said. “I took over from him in 1960 right after I graduated from high school. In 1967, our Holstein bull attacked me. He shoved me up against a wall and cracked three of my ribs. We sold him the next day and have been 100 percent A.I. ever since. We’ve been doing embryo transplants since 2000. We usually get between eight to 16 embryos per flush, but there have been times when we’ve gotten more than 50.”
    Alan built a new 46-cow tiestall barn in 1980 and expanded it to 70 tiestalls in 1995. The Zoellners’ dairy facilities include 10 climate-controlled box stalls for their show animals. All of the cattle at Al-Shar Holsteins are registered.  
    In addition to milking their 70 head of dairy cows, the Zoellners farm 1,100 acres of corn, soybeans and alfalfa.
    “Showing cattle doesn’t start at the fair,” said Troy, who has been showing dairy animals since he was 8 years old. “It isn’t a one-day event. It’s a 365-day event. Showing cattle takes a lot of hard work the whole year through.”
    The Zoellner family brought a personal record number of cattle to the South Dakota State Fair this year, including six cows and 12 heifers.
    About five years ago, they began to lease show animals to neighboring 4-H club members. This year, they leased out four head.
    “The kids who lease our animals have to break them to lead, wash them and get them ready for the show ring,” Troy said. “They will be getting the 4-H premiums, and we want them to work for it.”
    The Zoellners have traditionally shown cattle at the Brown County Fair, the Minnesota State Holstein Show and the South Dakota State Fair.
    “When we were kids, showing cattle at the Brown County Fair and the South Dakota State Fair were about the only two days we got off,” Darin said. “Showing dairy cattle is a part of who we are.”
    In 1999, they added World Dairy Expo to their lineup of show events.
    “We will be taking three or four head to Madison this fall,” Troy said. “A couple of years ago, we sold a Holstein cow at the World Dairy Expo. She is now living in Quebec, Canada, and is scored at 96 points. She’s also been nominated for All-American Holstein and All-Canadian Holstein. Even though we don’t own her, she’s still working for us because she’s still wearing the Al-Shar Holsteins prefix.”
    Anne grew up on a hobby farm; she teaches second grade at Groton Elementary School.
    “Marrying Darin meant taking a crash course in dairy farming,” Anne said. “I learned that showing dairy cattle involves a lot of commitment. It’s nice to see how the cattle progress as they mature. And, it’s great to have the kids involved. It teaches them about hard work and responsibility.”
    There was a time when Al-Shar Holsteins was strictly a black and white operation. That changed some years ago when they added a few Jerseys to their herd. Five years ago, Milking Shorthorn cattle appeared in the barn.
    At this year’s South Dakota State Fair, Al-Shar Holsteins exhibited nine Holsteins, six Jerseys and three Milking Shorthorns.
    “I fell in love with the Milking Shorthorn breed,” Anne said. “Darin indulged me by purchasing a Milking Shorthorn heifer sight unseen. We have also introduced some Red and White Holsteins into our herd by developing our own genetics. It’s wonderful to see all of that color in the barn.”
    The tradition of dairy showmanship is being passed down to the next generation of the Zoellner family. Carter participated in the peewee division of the youth showmanship event this year. Carter was assisted by his brother, Walker, as he led his Holstein heifer into the show ring.
    “There’s no big secret to breeding cattle that can bring home prizes. You just have to study their pedigrees and use bulls that you think will improve their bloodlines,” said Alan, reflecting on his 65 years of showing dairy cattle.
    Troy is happy his children can experience showing as he did.
    “This fall will be Jordan’s first time showing at World Dairy Expo,” Troy said. “I remember how it was the first time I led a cow into the arena at the World Dairy Expo. It’s overwhelming. You see those people and those cattle that have come from all over the world and you realize that this is big. This is the world. It’s a great experience and one that I hope each of our kids will have someday.”