Dairy Star interviews ag professionals for an inside look at their careers.

One-On-One with Willis Gunst

Pine River, Wisconsin, Lincoln County Classifier with Holstein Association USA 32 years of experience


What is your dairy industry background? I grew up on my family’s registered Holstein dairy farm in Dodge County. I attended the University of Wisconsin-Madison Farm and Industry Short Course in 1985-86 and spent a lot of time clipping cows before I began working as a classifier Dec. 1, 1992. For the better part of 15 years, my wife, Carla, and I developed a herd of cows, both in partnership and also on our own. We dispersed the herd four years ago. I did enjoy milking cows, and those experiences helped make me a better classifier.

How did you get started as a classifier? Once I gave up on my dreams of becoming a professional basketball player, a career evaluating dairy cows was high on my list. While growing up, I always thought classification was a big deal. From the moment I first learned to run a set of clippers, I wanted to help my family, and eventually others, present their cows to look the best they could. I was, and still am, passionate about breeding better cows. I was fortunate to have mentors like Frank Regan, Neal Turley and Dale Kranz, just to name a few, who fostered that passion and helped me formulate in my mind what a really good cow looks like. They also helped nurture my ability to see and evaluate cows correctly.

How has the Holstein Association USA classification program changed throughout your career? Technology has changed. I started right as Holstein Association USA was switching over to hand-held computers to replace the worksheets classifiers used previously. I trained on the hand-helds right alongside the current classification staff as they were making the change. There have been changes as to how the final scores are determined and how traits are prioritized, as determined by members of the association’s genetic advancement and type advisory committees. We have a lot of innovative thinkers on these committees and in the breed, helping to determine what direction we should be taking. When I first started, we were classifying Ayrshire cows. Now in the past several years, we have begun evaluating Guernseys and, in this past year, started evaluating Milking Shorthorns and Ayrshires again. I am enjoying that and find the challenge refreshing — variety is the spice of life.

How do you evaluate cows for classification? There are 18 traits for which we evaluate cows on a linear scale of 1 to 50. Most of the time, the higher the number, the better, but there are some traits, called two-way traits, where a more middle-of-the-road score is ideal, such as traits like leg set. Then there are traits I call common sense traits, like udder depth, where it is acceptable for young cows to have a higher score, signaling a shallower udder; but by the same token, it is acceptable for an older cow, one in her fourth or fifth lactation or beyond, to carry her udder closer to her hocks. We are looking for a balanced cow, a cow that fits into a lot of different environments successfully. We want cows that can live a long time and perform at high levels. The high level of production these cows can achieve with less udder volume than cows of the past is amazing; udder texture is the unsung trait. Locomotion plays a big role in that long-lived performance as well. Beyond the linear scores, the Holstein classification system also uses breakdowns where udder traits account for 40% of the overall final score, dairy strength and feet and legs both account for 20%, front end capacity factors in as 15%, and the rump makes up 5% of the final score. We use each breed association’s criteria for how we evaluate cows of those breeds.

What do you enjoy about working as a classifier? I love my job as I have been doing it for 32 years. I enjoy earning my living getting to see rural America, and I love seeing all four seasons. Above all, it amazes me that I get paid to look at cows and talk about cows with people who love cows and breeding good cows as much as I do. It is a great honor to go into someone’s farm and give them an honest evaluation of their cows and their breeding program. It is a lot of long days and a lot of days away from the home, but I am doing something I am passionate about. My good friend, mentor and past co-worker, the late Ronnie Schaap, told me there is no greater privilege than to decide how great a great cow is.

What does a typical day classifying cows look like? I don’t know if there is actually a typical day while scoring cows. Most classification days start around 7:30 a.m. and go through the afternoon until 5 p.m. Beyond that, you could see and do just about everything. I have had days where I drive around a bunch and make several stops to evaluate small herds to spending multiple days at a farm evaluating hundreds of cows. It depends on the area you are in and the herds on the schedules.

How much time do you spend traveling? In a typical month, I’ll be evaluating cows 12 to 18 days each month. In an average year, I spend over 100 nights in hotels. I am predominantly in the Midwest, but I have classified cows in 37 states, and the ones left will be hard to get to because of low cow numbers — it’s been a long time since anyone has scored cows in Alaska or Hawaii.

How has traveling changed since the beginning of your career as a classifier? Cell phones have made traveling different. The process of flying has changed a lot since Sept. 11, 2001, and the cost of air travel has increased. Airport security lines were never a thing when I started, and now I have missed flights twice because of lines. I don’t fly often, and I travel further by car than I used to. With the car I am driving right now, I have put on over 130,000 miles in just over 24 months. Areas I used to enjoy traveling to are no longer pleasant places to visit and stay. One example is Bellingham, Washington. It was a gorgeous area and a beautiful town, but it has really regressed since the state of Washington legalized marijuana. You see many more people standing in intersections or in front of businesses with signs. When I returned a rental car in Seattle, at the last exit before the airport, there were seven people holding up signs. In northwest Wisconsin, a lady with a sign saying her kids were hungry knocked on my window at a gas station. Not knowing their actual motives, I will not give cash, but I bought that lady milk, bananas and ham in the gas station for her children. I hope it helped to make the next 24 hours better than the previous 24 hours.

How do you spend your time, while traveling, when you are not classifying cows? I work hard at not having downtime while I am on the road, and it happens pretty infrequently. I have driven to see Niagara Falls or done sightseeing, but the majority of what I want to see, I see just driving through rural America.

Do you have a certain area of the country you enjoy visiting? I love the scenery of the Pacific Northwest with the Cascade Mountains and the Pacific Ocean, and in some places, you can see both at the same time. Different areas of the country can be so different, depending on the time of the year or where you are in the state. Utah is a remarkable state with drastically different landscapes, from mountains to flat deserts. Scoring at Eskdale Holsteins is extraordinarily unique. You drive for 90 miles from a town to get there, and at least 50 of those you have no cell service. I loved seeing baled cotton in southern Georgia — I had never seen a big bale of cotton, and I stopped to take photos because it was so neat.

What is your most memorable experience classifying cows? Mostly those are weather-related. One April, I was scoring cows in South Dakota, and they had had a snowstorm before I got there. Once you get off the main roads, you don’t have to drive far until you are off good gravel roads. I did get stuck in the mud and had to walk 2-3 miles to the farm. Another time I was in Kansas, and in a 24-hour period, the area had 7 inches of rain. I had a Dodge Dakota truck that ended up on dirt — or mud — roads for 3-4 miles. I didn’t think I was going to get through. When I got back to a paved highway, there was so much mud collected under my truck that I couldn’t get the four-wheel drive to disengage. I had to continue on about 10 miles in 4-low. After we got done scoring the cows, we used a power washer to clean the bottom of my truck, to finally disengage the 4WD. One other time I was in Whatcom County, Washington, where they typically don’t get much snow. While I was there, they got 8 inches of snow. The whole county only had two things they could use to plow snow — a utility truck with a single blade and a road grader. I got stuck in a drift in the middle of the road on my way to Kent VanDyk’s farm. He brought his truck and a tow strap and got me pulled through the drift.

Who is your all-time favorite cow? One of my own favorites was my Mark Candy, who scored EX-95 and made over 300,000 pounds of milk in her lifetime. She was sired by my favorite bull, Walkway Chief Mark. While growing up, I was awestruck by Brookview Tony Charity. She was at least 20 years ahead of her time. She was deep and wide like the other great cows of the time but much sharper, cleaner and more dairy; she had a beautiful head and neck. More modern-day, I would have to say Snow-N Denises Dellia — her udder was 30 years ahead of her time; she could hold a lot of milk and do it so gracefully. She transmitted that udder on to her offspring. She was also sired by my favorite bull, and she was the dam of another of my favorite bulls — Durham — who became so impactful. The changes the breed has had in traits like udder texture and height and width of rear udder — Dellia ushered that in.


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