This year’s Reserve Supreme Champion of World Dairy Expo was the Holstein Sheeknoll Durham Arrow – but her owners call her “Thomas.” She was exhibited by Sheeknoll Farms of Rochester, MN. She is a home-bred cow and was named first place Aged Cow, Six-Year-Old & Older, and Top Bred and Owned, along with Senior and Grand Champion Female during the International Holstein Show during World Dairy Expo.
The Sheehan family farm includes two dairy facilities – in one they milk 250 cows in a double-12 parlor and freestall setup which was new in 2000, when they had a sense that the younger generation wanted to be part of the business. Their other dairy barn includes 52 tie stalls. The family strives to breed sound, long-lasting cows and one of the products of that breeding practice made her mark on World Dairy Expo this year.
The farm partnership includes three brothers and their wives who work together: Jim and Mary Sheehan, Jerome and Karen Sheehan and Robert and Jeannette Sheehan. Jim and Mary’s two sons, Steve and Ben have joined the partnership as well as Robert and Jeannette’s son Andrew.
“What a day – words cannot describe the excitement, shock and sheer happiness we all feel as our cow Thomas was named Grand Champion Holstein and Reserve Supreme Champion at World Dairy Expo,” the family posted on Facebook. “Thank you to everyone who supported and cheered us on. We’ll remember this day forever.”
The Sheehans also posted a thank you to their helpers at home for all their hard work. “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t be able to be at Expo and we really appreciate all that they do.”
When Jeannette remembers the moment on the colored shavings as Expo when she realized her cow was taking the Reserve Supreme trophy, she still tears up with excitement and amazement.
“It’s my greatest honor. Never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d have a cow that was champion of the State Show or State Fair and never in my wildest dreams did I think I’d be leading a cow that was champion at World Dairy Expo,” she told Wisconsin State Farmer by telephone.
A question she gets a lot is why the family refers to the Holstein as “Thomas.” Jeannette explains that the non-feminine moniker goes back to the animal’s calfhood. The Sheehans sent a couple of calf hutches and babies up to Jeannette’s parents’ place. The older couple had retired from milking cows, but were willing to feed calves for their youngest grandchildren to show.
Grandpa turned that rather runty calf into a “butterball,” Jeannette says, feeding her milk replacer every time she called for more. The young nephew who showed the calf in non-competitive under-nine classes at the county fair was a big fan of Thomas the Tank Engine stories. He decided to call her Thomas and the name has stuck with her – at least in the family.
“She’s really spunky and tough so the name Thomas kind of fits her,” Jeannette said. “We don’t even think of her as Arrow. We think of her as Thomas.”
That toughness came into play last year when the Sheehans almost lost her. She managed to ingest some nightshade that sprang up at the edge of her pen, in August when the berries are on the plants. “She was down and so sick we thought we were going to lose her. But her toughness came through.”
The cow was pregnant at the time and despite the poisoning, she maintained her pregnancy, got dried off early and delivered a healthy heifer calf that led to her string of wins this season.
Those wins at the Minnesota State Holstein Show, State Fair and Expo are doubly sweet for the family as Jeannette’s dad – the man who raised Thomas as a calf – died just before the State Show. They decided to dedicate this season in his honor and feel they have done him proud.
Despite making production records of around 30,000 pounds of milk, Thomas is a cow that “doesn’t need to be pampered,” Jeannette said. “She’s a very easy cow to have around.”
She said her champion is “not an extra-large cow. She’s a good sized breeder kind of cow with great rib and an outstanding udder.”
Thomas calved for the first time at two years of age and has calved every April since then. “We’ve only used five units of semen on her,” she said, “and gotten five calves.” The outstanding cow has also been flushed to produce embryos.
Robert and Jeannette became part of the Sheehan family farm in 1984 after he worked as a sire and mating analyst for Minnesota Valley Breeders (now part of Genex.) They decided to build a new 52-cow tie stall barn with pens where they can also milk cows. That facility allowed them to be part of the family operation and breed the kind of cows they like in their own separate herd. Their ability to generate high-quality offspring for sale has allowed them to weather some of the low tides in milk prices.
The couple and their son Andrew and daughter-in-law Juliana all know what they’re looking for in cows that will milk and show well. Their show cattle are housed in the smaller herd at their barn. “We love it. We’re all passionate about farming and dairying – the whole family.”
Thomas was not shown as a heifer and then as a Junior two-year-old she was spunky, as many Durham daughters are, says Jeannette. “I wanted to let the kids show her, but Juliana was pregnant at the time and they let me come out of retirement to show her,” she says with a laugh. Soon Jeannette was the go-to person the lead line for Thomas.
“She finally grew into herself,” says the proud co-owner who led her on the colored shavings at Expo. “This cow was my father’s last cow that he raised on the farm and we are so proud. It’s been her year.”
The family has consigned a Doorman daughter of Thomas, (aka Arrow) to the “Sales of Stars” at the Royal.
MN homebred takes Reserve Champion at Expo