More milk than any other
Gigi is a record breaker, one of a kind, the best ever at what she does: producing milk at Bur-Wall Holsteins, a small dairy farm (in today's terms) in Brooklyn.
In November 2015, on twice-a-day milking and no added rBST, the 9-year-old cow completed her 365-day lactation, in which she produced 74,650 pounds of milk.
This is the most milk ever recorded over a 365-day lactation (going back to 1971) by Holstein Association USA, the world's largest dairy breed association.
The previous record of 72,170 pounds was held by Ever-Green-View My, owned by Thomas J. Kestell, Waldo. At the time, this was considered by many as an 'impossible' record to break, but it was surpassed by 2,480 pounds by Gigi.
Much has been written about Gigi and her record in recent months, and she deserves it. However, there's a lot more to the story — her beginning, her home, her life, all of it centering on the Behnke family who bred, raised and own her.
Last week on a rainy, windy, nasty day, I made a trip to Bur-Wall Holsteins to visit longtime friends Wallace and Donna Behnke and son Bob and to meet Gigi.
Burgess and Lucille Behnke bought this farm in 1944. Wallace was one of four children, and after graduating from Brooklyn High (now long gone), had aspirations to attend the UW-Madison Farm Short Course.
'My parents didn't agree with the idea,' Wallace said. 'So I stayed on the farm. My passion, even then, was registered Holsteins.'
In 1960, Wallace married Donna Bjerke, a farm girl who had lived near Stoughton for some years, and they took over the Behnke home farm with 30 milking cows on a 50/50 arrangement with his parents.
'I bought my first registered Holsteins, two cows, from Oscar Holte, east of Stoughton,' Wallace said, 'They worked out well, and our herd grew. The Bur-Wall Holsteins name came about at that time as a combination of Burgess (my dad) and Wallace (me).'
In 1968, Wallace and Donna bought the 160-acre farm (an additional 100 acres was added later), the herd grew to 42 cows and they got serious about breeding Holsteins.
'Both Donna and I showed cattle, often at Black and White shows, until the kids got old enough, but we knew nothing,' Wallace admitted with a chuckle. 'My uncle helped us clip cattle.'
'The Brooklyn and Oregon schools merged, and our kids joined an Oregon 4-H Club and were in the FFA,' Donna and Wallace explained. 'This meant our calves were shown at the Dane County Fair even though our farm was just over the line in Green County.'
The Behnke offspring, Roger, Keri, Bryan, Bob and Brenda, were well known in Holstein show rings, and the family was active in local and state activities.
'We had good cattle,' Wallace said. 'We won at the Wisconsin Black and White Show and had a number of All-Wisconsin cows in the 70s and consigned at sales.'
A personal note that I had pretty much forgotten: after my dad (also John) quit milking in the mid-1960s, he annually bought registered calves for my nieces (four daughters of Kim and Norm Monsen, Stoughton) to manage in the now-empty home barn and show at the Stoughton and Dane County Fairs.
They always ended up winning blue ribbons, and of course, the animals had to be sold as young heifers. Several were bought by Wallace and Donna Behnke as they were growing their herd.
'Your dad knew how to pick calves,' Wallace said. 'They made good cows and were in our herd for a long time.'
He credited Marlowe Nelson, then of Tri-State Breeders (now Accelerated Genetics), and Bill Weeks of aAa fame for influencing his Holstein career.
Gigi born at Bur-Wall
As for Gigi, Wallace purchased her dam as a 2-month-old calf at the 2004 Spring Sizzler Sale in Freeport, Illinois.
'She was consigned by a breeder in Michigan, ' he said. 'Gigi was first shown by our grandson at the county fair and has placed well at the Midwest Spring Holstein Shows and World Dairy Expo.'
She was also named '2013 Star of the Breed,' by Holstein USA, an award based on type classification and production. 'This is an award you do not apply for,' Wallace said. 'It's presented by the association.
'Gigi has four daughters, all in our herd.' Behnke added. 'All three that are milking have made over 40,000 milk, and one is a heifer.'
A big, black cow
Her full name is Bur-Wall Buckeye Gigi, and she is a big, black, 9-year-old Holstein cow who is a bit too big to live in a tie-stall like her 59 (or so) female companions that produce milk at Bur-Well Holsteins, so she has her own pen.
No, it isn't a special pen, just a pen: half straw bedding, half bare concrete with a corner manger and a pipeline running overhead. Gigi wasn't a bit concerned when Wallace opened the gate and stood beside her. Oh, she did cock her ears when the stranger (me) took her picture — probably more out of curiosity than surprise. After all, she's seen it all before.
How did Gigi come to produce a record 74,650 pounds of milk in a year (365 days)?
The answers are few or many depending on how you look at it. Her genetics; good health; lots of feed and care by the Behnkes; and certainly some luck along the way are all part of the story.
Although Gigi produced over 32,000 milk as a 2-year-old, jumped to 52,000 a couple of years later and hit 61,000 as an 8-year-old, the Behnkes didn't really see a world record in the offing. And even if they realized the possibility, they knew well that nothing was assured until the the last day and until records were checked and approved.
Three years ago, Wallace and Donna Behnke sold the dairy cows and heifers to son Bob and Denise, but Bur-Wall Holsteins remains a family operation.
The Behnkes have given much to Wisconsin dairying, including providing managerial calves to 13 city youth over the years and working with local, state and national Holstein groups.
The far-reaching fame of Gigi has not changed them. Yes, they have had national interest in her embryos, and yes, they house the best Holstein that ever was, milk-production-wise.
Still, the day of my visit, Wallace was doing chores, Donna was feeding calves, Bob was moving feed with an end loader and Gigi was chewing her cud. A typical day for a marvelous dairy farm family.
Too bad that animal welfare critics and city folks who have never been on a family dairy farm or have never seen Gigi can't get a close look like I did. They'd be amazed.
John Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.