Butterfat the longtime deal-maker for dairy cows

Ray Mueller

How did dairy farmers evaluate, promote and advertise the production of their cows from the 1910s until into the 1980s?

It was how many pounds of butter the cow had produced in one week, a month, or for a lactation of 300 or more days.

Butterfat production served as the basic criterion for registered dairy cattle that could be consigned to the Calumet County Holstein Breeders “400 Sale,” which started in 1943 and has been credited as being “the grandaddy” of many similar sales that followed elsewhere.

Early evaluations

On documents available in Calumet County, one of the earliest indications of the practice of distinguishing dairy cows on the basis of their butterfat production was in the county fair's entry and premium book for 1919.

That edition contained an advertisement by dairy farmer Walter H. Steffensen in the town of Harrison (adjacent to Appleton) which pointed out that one of his cows had produced 145.66 pounds of butter in 30 days, which was considered to be a world record at the time.

Based on butter being between 80 to 85 percent fat, the cow would have had to be producing about 95 pounds of milk per day with a butterfat percentage of close to 4 percent, both of which would still be above the average production for dairy cows today.

Other dairy farmers in Calumet County chimed in with similar but less lofty numbers. In the 1922 fair premium book, John and Leonard Seybold of Forest Junction advertised a Holstein bull whose sister and another close genetic relative had produced 35 and 31 pounds of butter in seven days.

1923-24 pocketbook ads

The 1923-24 pocketbook size first annual report for the new Cow Testing Association that was based at Chilton and which had up to 29 members at its peak contained numerous ads by members touting the butter production of either cows or sires that they owned.

At the top of the list was an ad by Anton Molg of La-Bu farm near Chilton for a Carnation sire with the genetics of the only cow in the world known to have produced more than 1,000 pounds of milk in seven days and which had five close relatives or offspring that produced an average of 36.82 pounds of butter in seven days.

H.G. Pingel of Fountain Creek Dairy promoted his cow which produced 468 pounds of milk and 28.3 pounds of butter in seven days. Following closely was the cow on Louis Koehler's Queen Belle farm which had 592 pounds of milk and 28.25 pounds of butter in seven days.

Fully 20 years before the fact, Koehler would have had dairy cattle well qualified for consignment to the county's 400 Sale that began in 1943. Production records for a full lactation with local Cow Testing Association for 1923 credited two of Koehler's mature cows with 536 pounds of butter and a 2- year-old with 414 pounds.

For Joseph Juckem's Butter Cup Dairy at the north edge of Chilton, an ad cited cows with 23 and 21 pounds of butter in seven days. In their ad, John Salm and his sons listed their goals as having “one cow produce what two did before.”

Butterfat basis

When the Calumet County Holstein Breeders started their “400 Sale” in November of 1943, it had 23 bulls and 2 heifers consigned and accepted on the basis of having proven production records of at least 400 pounds of butterfat in one lactation by their dams.

Although the improvements in production had raised that number to above 1,000 pounds of butterfat per lactation for many cows by the time of the 30th year of the 400 Sale on September 5, 1972, the name of the precedent-setting event was not changed because of the tradition which existed.

Listing dairy herd production achievements according to pounds of butterfat rather than pounds of milk per lactation continued for many decades in annual reports by the Calumet County Dairy Herd Improvement Association and its several predecessors. It was not until December of 1984 that protein content was also analyzed in milk sampling and used in reporting production by individual cows.