How A Connecticut Bull Changed Dairy Farming Forever
In the pantheon of dairy cows, Osborndale Ivanhoe is Zeus. Even the cattle who are not his natural children address him as Father, and all cows rise in his presence.
Ivanhoe sired more than 100 sons and 5,000 daughters, one of which sold for a world record amount in the 1980s. In generations to come, the DNA of his sons and grandsons would sell for millions, creating a worldwide family tree fueled by the business of artificial insemination.
If you drink milk, it’s likely you’ve consumed a product that’s somehow related to Ivanhoe — a stud born under the watchful eye of a wealthy woman in Derby, Conn.
Ivanhoe’s story starts at the Osborndale Farm in 1952. And before we get to the birth of the bull, we need to talk about the lady who bred him, Frances Osborne Kellogg, a woman “of many interests" who was fairly well established in the dairy industry — a rarity for women at that time.
In case you’re wondering, Frances wasn’t related to the Kellogg family of cereal fame, but her family was wealthy and Frances (pictured below) actually endowed the animal science program at UConn.
To learn more I met up with Bonnie Burr. She’s Assistant Director at UConn’s Cooperative Extension. She said Kellogg loved Holsteins. Those are the black and white cows typically associated with the dairy industry.
Burr said Frances was a very hands on breeder. When her favorite cows came into heat she’d go into the barn and sit, waiting to ensure the right bull bred with the right cow. “Picture this: a very well to do woman, sitting on a bale of hay behind a cow,” Burr said. “Making sure that the Ty Vic Bull had a rendezvous with Gay. And that got us Ivanhoe.”
Burr is referencing Abbekerk Gay — Ivanhoe’s mom. And “Ty Vic,” his Dad. (Holsteins have odd names.)
Physically, Ivanhoe was imposing. He had what farmers call “dairy strength,” standing about six feet tall with a wide stance and a good length. Demand for dairy was growing at the time and farmers wanted bigger cattle so the larger the cow, the bigger the digestive tract to convert nutrients. That meant more milk and more profits.
Rise of Artificial Insemination
Today, artificial insemination (taking bull sperm and placing it in a cow’s vagina) is used all over the dairy industry. But back in the late 1950s, people like Frances Osborne Kellogg would have to be in the barn with the mating bulls. Burr said that’s a big risk, sitting in a barn with 2,000 lbs. of unpredictable “cantankerous cow.”
"In the olden days — even here at UConn — we would have a bull barn," Burr said. "We would leave a couple of bulls in there and those two bulls pretty much serviced the whole herd for a couple of years. Then you would have to move them along to maintain genetic diversity. With AI … you could draw from the bull and the bull would be spread nationwide."
A Hot Commodity
Ivanhoe’s size meant his genes were appealing to farmers. Kellogg realized the commodity she created and quickly got Ivanhoe “sampled” so his DNA could be bred with other cows in New England and beyond. For a time, Ivanhoe’s semen was selling for $12,000 per unit and some of his descendants sold for record breaking prices. In 1982, his daughter, Glamourous Ivy, sold for over $1 million. A world record.
But it wasn’t all fat stacks and glamour. Artificial insemination, Burr noted, has its drawbacks. When you’re spreading DNA far and wide it spreads everything, the good traits, but also the bad ones.
And that “bad stuff” began appearing in the late 1980s, about 16 years after Ivanhoe died. Cows were being born and, for no reason, dying off.
To learn more about this part of the story, I called up Marcus Kehrli, immunologist and director of the National Animal Disease Center. He recalled a sick calf born in 1989. The animal, he said, had a really high white blood cell count. Those are the cells that fight disease. “Typically as a vet, if you see an animal with elevated white blood cell count, you think there’s an infectious problem,” Kehrli said. “So we took a look at the calf, but he was standing up and drinking his milk.”
And that was curious, because scientists couldn’t find the source of any infection. When the calf later got sick and died, Kehrli started to think this elevated blood cell count might be related to a genetic disorder. He began pulling pedigrees and very quickly he saw a lot of those pedigrees were pointing back to Ivanhoe.
By chance, Kehrli happened to be booked for a biology conference in Florida. He knew he was onto something, but he didn’t want to miss the conference, so he took his papers with him on the plane and the whole way down he said he couldn’t stop thinking about this dead calf.
At the conference, Kehrli ran into a doctor named Donald Anderson, who was presenting on a condition called “leukocyte adhesion deficiency,” an immune disease in children. Anderson outlined all the symptoms in humans “and he proceeded to describe all of the defects that we had detected in this calf,” Kehrli said.
So Kehrli’s starts thinking, what if this human disease is basically the same thing he’s seeing in his cows?
"I was very concerned about this," Kehrli said. If it was a genetic disorder, he said the fate of the entire Holstein breed could be at risk. During the 1970s and 80s the descendants of Ivanhoe were spreading their genes worldwide and all the big sperm banks were unaware they were passing along defective DNA.
Working with Anderson, Kehrli sequenced the genes of healthy cows and the genes of cows carrying what scientists now call BLAD (Bovine Leukocyte adhesion deficiency). He discovered two things: BLAD is recessive, which means a sick calf must inherit it from both parents, and it was spreading rapidly.
The first part of that finding was good news, recessive traits meant it could be bred out of the herd population, but the second part was more alarming. Kehrli found about 6 to 8 percent of the dairy cows carried this defect and about 17 percent of the bull studs. That meant about 50,000 American calves per year were poised to die. “You multiply that number around the world and there’d be over 100,000 calves per year that would have died from this condition had we not be able to eradicate it from the breed,” Kehrli said.
A Genetic Defect, Traced Back To Derby
Between the genetic tests and the pedigrees, it looked like all indications pointed to Ivanhoe as the progenitor of BLAD, but scientists still needed the smoking gun — a sample of the genetic defect from the bull himself. Ivanhoe died in 1963, but “we were able to get an ampule of semen from Ivanhoe,” Kehrli recalled. From that, “we were able to basically trace all the carriers of this defective allele back to Ivanhoe and his sire.”
Put another way, this bull born in Derby, the one with the super genes — had one gene that almost wiped out the very race of super cattle he helped create.
Luckily, thanks to Kehrli and others, the Holstein breed was saved. Now that scientists knew BLAD could be traced to Ivanhoe, they could mark the pedigrees of his descendants to ensure that no two carriers of the recessive BLAD gene were mated together.
Over time, this effectively washed BLAD out of the gene pool.
Osborndale Ivanhoe’s Legacy
So how many cattle did Ivanhoe sire? Well, the numbers here are tricky. But here’s what we do know. “In 1982, Osborndale Ivanhoe had what we call the highest ‘relationship coefficient’ to the entire registered breed,” Kehrli said. “About 10 percent of all the genetics in registered Holsteins born that year could be traced to Ivanhoe.”
That means of all the cattle born in 1982, 10 percent of their genetic makeup could be traced directly back to a bull born in Derby.
Today, Bonnie Burr from UConn said Ivanhoe “is consistently ranked in the top ten most influential cattle in the world.” There’s a stained glass portrait memorializing him at the National Dairy Shrine in Wisconsin (pictured above) and he was buried in a marked grave in Pennsylvania.
And remember those kids Ivanhoe had? They were even more influential. Burr said Ivanhoe’s grandson, “Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation,” is today listed as the single most influential Holstein bull in the world — spawning an estimated 8.8 million children and grandchildren, found in pastures around the world, from South America to Australia.
King of the cows, indeed.
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