BLACKSTOCK — Winning a Master Breeder shield is an achievement for any dairy farm. But winning four puts you in a very small and select class.
And not just one, but two farms took home their fourth shield last month, as Holstein Canada announced the shield recipients for 2020. Altona Lea Farms at Blackstock and Ronbeth Holsteins at Hastings, both in East-Central Ontario, became the second and third farms to ever win that many shields. Seven Ontario farms in total took home shields. The first farm to win a fourth shield was High Point Farms, owned by Robert Smith, of Port Perry in 2020. Winning a shield means breeding generations of long-lasting, show-class animals that can pump out milk with the best of them.
While Altona Lea Farms has been in operation for more than 100 years, it wasn’t until the 1960s that it started focusing on genetics, said Glenn Barkey. He, his wife and mum run the farm alongside his sister and brother-in law, the Puterboughs. They milk 50 cows of a 140-head herd in a tie-stall and milking parlour.
Not too many farms can say they got their start because of a major historical event. But the Barkeys can. His ancestors were Pennsylvania Dutch, German immigrants and Crown loyalists who travelled north to remain under British rule after the American Revolutionary War.
That farm stayed in the family until a much more minor event: their land was expropriated in the early 1970s after the approval for the construction of the Pickering Airport. The family were given 60 days to leave before the start of construction. The construction date never came and airport was never built on their farm. But the situation was tenuous and they shopped around and bought at Blackstock.
It wasn’t long before Barkey’s father, who’d been amazed as a young man at what a good cow could fetch at a sale, started making progress. The farm took home its first shield in 1978, then another in 1994, when Glenn came home from University of Guelph. They won their next shield in 2006.
Shields go out on a schedule: farms can’t win them until 14 years have passed from their last shield. Holstein Canada looks at 16 years of data to decide if you qualify. After 14 years farms can try for another shield, but they effectively get zeroes for two of those years. That stacks the deck against early repeat winners. But Altona Lea and Ronbeth pulled it off anyway.
And despite being in the business for so long, there’s still learning to be done, Barkey said. Mystery traits are still a thing: while certain traits have clear correlations to health and longevity, how they interact with each other and with the unpredictable circumstances of life are always unknown. “That’s what keeps it interesting.”
Winning a shield isn’t a solitary venture. Apart from farms relying on family, winning a shield isn’t a job for a brilliant loner toiling in isolation to squeeze the most out of an animal’s genetics. Animals you sell add to your score if they perform well; showing animals isn’t just a good way to drum up sales but a good way to meet people. Breeding is a bug you can catch and the Barkeys definitely have, but “the community aspect of breeding, showing a bit and participating in that kind of community is really big for our family,” he said. “Farmers are great people and sometimes you need a reason to go meet some.”