By Stew Slater
Up a long farm laneway, on a farmstead hidden behind a row of mature trees just south of Lakeside, the Unholzer family recently celebrated one of the highest honours bestowed upon Canadian dairy farms that raise Holstein cows: a second Master Breeders Shield.
“It’s dedication to a breeding program. It’s dedication to the type (of cow) that you’re aiming to promote. It’s dedication to detail,” says family patriarch Joe Unholzer, referring to the dairy operation’s recently-announced award. Then, quickly, Unholzer adds: “And you have to be profitable.”
“At the end of the day, if you’re not profitable, you’re not in business.”
When Bushyview Farms earned its first Master Breeders Shield from the Holstein Canada association in 2000, Joe could be credited for a good portion of the physical work, paperwork, and aforementioned dedication that went into the honour — which is bestowed upon farms with a high number of cows that score “Excellent” according to Holstein Canada’s classification criteria. But in the last couple of years, his physical contribution has been slowed considerably by complications from a broken foot.
Mobility problems, of course, haven’t prevented him from keeping up to speed on the developments in the barn. With ease, he rhymes off the numerous high-classifying cows that currently reside in Bushyview’s 65-head tie-stall set-up.
“Somebody said to me a few days ago, ‘I hear congratulations are in order. And I hear that you’re well on your way to the third (Master Breeders Shield).’ And, I’ll tell you, the (Holstein Canada) classifier was through later that day, and I thought maybe he might be right!”
On that day, the herd (which goes under the prefix “Holzer” in Holstein Canada ranks) classified five new Excellent cows, while 10 of their two-year-olds were given Very Good scores. In their current milking herd, that gives the Unholzers almost 25 Excellents.
“We’ve classified over 100 Excellent cows since we moved here in 1978,” relates Joe, originally from a dairy farm in Essex County.
But all that knowledge and experience aside, Joe happily concedes that the credit for the family’s second Master Breeders Shield rests to a large degree with his sons, Michael and Robert. He notes that Holstein Canada sets a high bar to reach when it comes to achieving a second Shield, as opposed to the first. Yet Bushyview Farms achieved it on its first year of eligibility, and did so with room to spare: for 2012 honours, it was ranked third in the country among the 495 potentially-eligible farms that could have been recognized.
This year, 21 Master Breeders Shields were awarded. They’ll be presented at Holstein Canada’s annual national convention in Niagara Falls in April.
“Even the last (Shield), to an extent, belonged to (his sons Robert and Michael) because, back then, they had started to have their input into the program. But this one, it’s a credit to all the long hours of hard work they put in. Michael is out there in the barn with the cows, and Robert does all the outside work — putting up good quality feed.”
It’s at this point that Joe’s wife (and mom to Robert and Michael) Nancy interjects: “There has to be some recognition for all the long hours of work that we do, because God knows there isn’t a lot on a day-to-day basis.”
And Nancy deserves a big helping of recognition too, given that she has faithfully fed and raised the calves at Bushyview Farms ever since the family moved onto the Lakeside-area property.
In the early years, it was a cow named Holzer Valiant Mary who helped set the Unholzer family on the path that eventually took them to their second Master Breeders Shield. One of their early Excellent cows, Valiant Mary went on to become Canadian champion for all three main categories of production: milk, fat and protein. “A lot of the family lines in our barn now can be traced back to her,” Joe explains.
“We’ve had a number of cows nominated for All-Canadian. We’ve had both cows and heifers win the Royal.” They had the top herd, production-wise, in Oxford County “for a couple of years running.”
“It’s amazing now, though, that there are cows that can double what Valiant Mary did in production. And genetics probably plays a small role in that, but feeding and management have a whole lot more to do with it. There have been such huge advancements in how we’re feeding cows now, for production.”
Breeding, however, and a commitment to a breeding program, remains very important to the Unholzer family. In a recent interview for another newspaper about the Master Breeders honour, Joe commented, “if you breed really good cows for 10 years and, for two years, you have the wrong sires, you go backward for 10 years, not two.”
Backward, it seems, isn’t an option in the Bushyview Farms breeding program — meaning the well-wisher’s recent suggestion about a third Master Breeders Shield may, indeed, not be that far from reality.