From tragedy to triumph: Genetics result in special Guernsey

Cow genetics result in special Guernsey

Wisconsin State Farmer
Dr. Melissa Haag and her Dad, Craig Garfoot, were all smiles after her miracle cow Nutter Butter won the Junior Three-Year-Old Guernsey class at World Dairy Expo earlier this month. After a start in the world that was fraught with challenges, the three-year-old Guernsey has been racking up honors in the show ring ever since.

Sometimes a cow is just a cow. But other times, a cow is a special creature – made from the dreams and aspirations of her people and from the intersection of good friends, good luck and the kindness of strangers. Sometimes she develops a personality that is like no other. Such a cow is Nutter Butter.

That’s Pond N Pines Beau Nutter Butter to be exact. She’s a Junior Three-year-old Guernsey who has been racking up wins in cattle shows since she was a calf. She recently won the Junior Three-Year-Old Guernsey class at the 2022 World Dairy Expo.

Melissa Haag, DVM is the force behind the Guernseys at Haag’s Pond N Pine Dairy, the Holstein farm her husband grew up on and where the couple farms with his parents. Though it was before her time, Melissa’s father’s family milked Guernseys, bottled the milk and distributed it themselves in glass bottles in the Madison area.

She thinks that Guernseys were a favorite for that kind of business – like Golden Guernsey in southeast Wisconsin – because of their docile nature and because of the qualities of their milk, which is rich in beta-carotene. Melissa grew up northeast of Fond du Lac. Dad is an agricultural engineer and Mom is a physical therapist.

Although her parents both grew up on farms, Melissa didn’t. All those Guernseys from her ancestor’s Garfoot Dairy had long since been dispersed, along with the family’s dairy plant and delivery service. As a kid, Melissa was more into horses – she participated in the Horseless Horse 4-H project.

The future veterinarian grew up loving horses, not cows, but she met Josh Haag in college and he is part of a dairy farming family in the Dane area. He won her over.

 “When I met Josh in college, I switched to cattle.”

One of Pond N Pines Beau Nutter Butter’s first shows was a Little Britches event at the Lodi Ag Fair with Melissa and Josh Haag’s daughter, Kayleigh Haag at the halter. Little did the Haag family know then how much the Guernsey calf was going to enjoy the spotlight.

Melissa and Josh now have daughters Kayleigh, 8 and Kelsey, 6, and another little girl on the way.

As graduation gift when she finished vet school, Josh gave Melissa a Guernsey calf. It didn’t seem right to Melissa to have only one. “She needed a friend,” she now says.

Melissa “happened” to walk into the Guernsey sale at World Dairy Expo and a heifer in the ring caught her eye. That $2,200 heifer, “Nona”, gave birth to Pond N Pines Crunch Nutella who went on to be a show heifer in regional events. “She was the first critter we showed at World Dairy Expo. She took third place winter calf of the Junior Show.”

Nutella was nominated Junior All American winter calf in 2017, which “was a big jump up from local and regional shows,” she said. Unfortunately, that’s when her story took a sad turn. When she was only a yearling and became breeding age, Nutella’s back was injured by other cattle in the pasture.

Advanced reproductive technique

But it’s also where some of the good luck happened. “That day Lodi Veterinary Care was doing IVF aspiration,” she said of the local veterinary clinic where she worked then. The procedure she described is an advanced reproductive technique in which oocytes are pulled off an ovary, to be used to create embryos.

A distraught Melissa had to euthanize her up-and-coming heifer and decided to remove her ovaries and see if Nutella’s genetics could be salvaged. “I was a mess and handed them over to Dr. Pete Strassburg who told me ‘I got this.’ Everybody knew I was super emotional,” she said. “It is such a great feeling to have friends and colleagues, co-workers and team members who have your back.”

Dr. Pete aspirated the ovaries and Nutella gave him 10 oocytes. A partner organization – Trans Ova Genetics, for whom Melissa now works – succeeded in creating four embryos. In the category of things that had to fall into place: a client with a Guernsey was at the clinic that day and had a supply of Guernsey semen already there and “recips happened to be in heat that day,” Melissa recounts.

“It was a situation where you held your breath every step of the way – from oocytes to embryos to calves. You wonder, will the recipients become pregnant? Will we get the calves at the end of the process? Somehow all the stars aligned. Nutter Butter is like ‘the peoples’ cow’,” she said.

Dr. Melissa Haag posed with Nutter Butter and her two full sisters at the Haag dairy farm near Dane soon after they were born. It was a confluence of happenstance, luck, skill and science that allowed her to get embryos from a beloved show Guernsey after having to euthanize her. The result of those efforts was the three full sisters – one of which, named Nutter Butter, has gone on to excel in the showring.

The efforts that day resulted in three pregnancies from Nutella – three full sisters that Melissa named Nutmeg, New Blue Dreams and Nutter Butter. “From that awful nightmare of a day,” she now says, “Lodi Veterinary Care and Trans Ova Genetics came through for us. It’s such a great story of friends having your back and crazy things that fell into place.”

The three heifers were born in June 2019 and Nutter Butter quickly “became the standout,” she says. The Haags’ young daughter showed her in a Little Britches show at the Lodi Ag Fair and nobody knew at the time what a show girl Nutter Butter would become. “She had a personality that wanted to be the center of attention,” Melissa said. “This cow just likes to be in the spotlight.”

The year she was a “summer yearling” in show-ring parlance, Nutter Butter was undefeated at the Guernsey local shows and at state and regional shows. But that was the year the pandemic disrupted everything. “She would have shown at Expo but they didn’t have it.”

In their early forays into the show ring with Nutter Butter, the heifer was shown by Hailey Richardson from Dane and the two of them formed a bond, Melissa said.

All American

In the absence of World Dairy Expo 2020, they took her to Louisville (the North American International Livestock Exposition or NAILE) and Nutter Butter was the Junior Champion of the Open Show there. She was unanimously chosen All American Summer Yearling for 2020. “It’s an honor to have our first All American, it’s an even bigger honor to have a unanimous All American,” she said, explaining that cattle are named All American by a panel of judges and a unanimous choice means that every judge backed the choice.

“She was Junior Champion at nine different Guernsey shows in 2020 and that’s when we knew we might have something here,” Melissa said. “At one show a young couple approached Josh and I and talked to us about how much they liked Nutter Butter. Jesse and Kami Dorn and their young son Braxton have Gold Rush Guernseys in New Glarus.

Pond N Pines Beau Nutter Butter was shown by Hailey Richardson at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville in 2020 – a year when showing was disrupted by the absence of World Dairy Expo. Nutter Butter was chosen Junior Champion of the Open Show on the green shavings there.

“They asked about Nutter Butter and we all hit it off like old friends and left the door open for a future partnership. We have a freestall/robot farm and are not set up to manage show cows but Jesse and Kami have box stalls for the show animals and they feed them an individualized ration. We made the decision to partner/ownership of Nutter Butter with Jesse and Kami, so they could further develop Nutter Butter as a show cow,” Melissa said. “Jesse and Kami have become an essential part of our team and even an extension of our family.”

Nutter Butter took to the pampering. “She is a princess,” says Melissa. “They have a bond. She’s that kind of cow.”

The pampering and personal bonding paid off. Nutter Butter was undefeated as a three-year-old milk cow this year and won Junior Three-Year-Old at World Dairy Expo 2022.

A professional photograph shows Nutter Butter with the purple ribbon she won at the North American International Livestock Exposition in Louisville in 2020. The ribbon represents her being chosen Junior Champion of the Open Show there.

Nutter Butter is Classified VG-89max – the max means she maxed out in her first classification when she was scored as a two-year-old and might have scored higher except for the ceiling placed on those first-time scores.

The Haags have done IVF on Nutter Butter quite a few times and she now has four daughters on the ground “and 15 coming,” Melissa said. “It’s quite a feat to have a cow like this that is not only owned but bred-and-owned. It is really something to have friends that helped get her here. And to think that a $2,200 heifer was the seed that developed into this cow. It is amazing.” Guernsey breeders have been very supportive and welcoming, she added.

“Being able to share in those World Dairy Expo emotions is amazing. You never dream you’ll have a cow that will be part of that,” she said.

 Nutter Butter is “on vacation” through the winter and “if she looks right next year we’ll bring her back out. We’ll let her decide,” Melissa added.

After her ten years at Lodi Veterinary Care, Melissa is now a professional services vet with Trans Ova Genetics. In that capacity she is a large-animal veterinarian focusing on advanced reproductive techniques in cattle.