‘Elevation’ of Holstein breed is foundation for today’s genetic tools

Looking back, and ahead, with George Miller (2011-13 interviews)
 
ARCHIVE STORY: By Sherry Bunting, Farmshine, February 15, 2013
 
RICHMOND, Va. — It has been nearly 48 years since August 30, 1965 when the great bull “Elevation” was born in northern Virginia on the former Round Oak Farm of the late Ronald Hope, Sr. The farm — which has now given way to housing developments and asphalt near Philomont, Loudoun County, Virginia — will be remembered for this indelible mark on Holstein genetics and the overall dairy industry as breeding technology and the cleverness of debating cousins with sharp eyes for cattle converged to produce the “Bull of the Century.”
 
A suggested mating by one cousin — rooted in 25 years of foundation breeding by the other — yielded Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation: The bull’s phenomenal ability to transmit and intensify genetic progress converged with the wave of technological advances in semen collection and storage and the streamlined efforts of regional animal breeder associations working collectively.
 
For Ronald Hope’s cousin — retired breeder and marketer George A. Miller — those days seem like only yesterday.
 
During the 2011 National Holstein Convention in Richmond, Virginia, I sat down with George Miller for a breakfast interview that could most aptly be described as getting schooled in generations of Holstein genetics — past, present and future.
 
Miller grew up in the same Virginia hills as the great Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation. As a child, Miller spent as much time as he could at his Uncle Charles Hope’s farm, which he recalls was at first home to Jerseys and just a few Holsteins.
 
“By 1948, Round Oak was all Holsteins,” said Miller of how his cousin Ronald, Sr., began developing the herd.
 
Twenty-five years later, Elevation — known for that rare combination of superior production, conformation and longevity — ushered in an era of Holstein genetics that received international acclaim and resulted in more than 100,000 recorded offspring and over 8.8 million descendants, worldwide.
 
Miller retired from Select Sires Inc. some 20 years ago, and remains a seasoned fixture of the industry, doing some consulting work part-time. While northern Virginia was his home for over half of his life, Miller lives today near the Select Sires home-base of Plain City, Ohio, which is also where Elevation was laid to rest in 1979.
 
Several years ago, the Virginia Holstein Association erected a marker in Loudoun County to give the bull — and his birthplace — a proper landmark for perpetuity. Included in the inscription are these words: “In agricultural history, no other animal equals Elevation’s impact on the world.”
 
The story of Elevation’s rise to fame had the humblest of beginnings, Miller relates: “Round Oak was a little farmer herd with a solid breeding foundation.   The string of cows was milked on official test three times a day.”
 
Back then, semen was extremely limited as a means of developing a herd’s genetics. Round Oak Farm acquired a number of animals from Clarence S. Harvey Brackel Holsteins, Cincinnatus, New York, and many were Montvic Chiefton 6th daughters. They purchased a Montvic Pathfinder son Prizetaker from the Harveys. 
 
The Hopes made another purchase from the Walkup Holsteins of Daniel Myers: Pinelee Posch Millie Girl made a national production record and graced the cover of the Holstein World for the 1952 National Convention.
 
But it all started with the Hope family’s interest in the line-bred Rag Apple family of Mount Victoria in Quebec, Canada, where they purchased animals, Miller recalls. The line descended from owner T.B. McCauley’s purchase of Johanna Rag Apple Pabst in the 1920s, making him the grandsire of many Holsteins, including Elevation.
 
Miller worked for his elder cousin Ron and attended Virginia Tech with a major in dairy science during these early years in which the Round Oak herd foundation was being developed — 20 years before Elevation was born.
 
Miller also worked for the Virginia Tech dairy and went on to get his masters degree there. He then became a fieldman for Virginia Animal Breeders, and served as the organization’s manager for eight years. By 1969, Virginia Animal Breeders merged with Select Sires, and Miller later became director of market development for this growing federation of organizations — a post he held for over 17 years.
 
But 10 years prior to the merger, Miller recalls the advent of the bull Osborndale Ivanhoe in 1958. He was purchased by the Southeast Pennsylvania Animal Breeders Cooperative (SPABC) before that organization became Atlantic Breeders.
 
“Our group was on the way to the National Convention that year in Boston, and we stopped at SPABC in Lancaster, Pa.,” Miller reflects. “Ivanhoe was the most extreme bull we ever saw. He was taller and longer… a breed-changer in my opinion. My cousin bought 100 units of Ivanhoe that day for that very reason.”
 
Miller explained that his cousin had been using two bulls from the Glenafton farm in Canada. One was Glenafton Gaiety.
 
“I suggested they breed  Gaiety daughters to Ivanhoe,” Miller related. “As those Ivanhoe daughters started freshening, they were impressive.”
 
A result of that mating — Round Oak Ivanhoe Eve — would later be the dam of Elevation.
 
“We were reading most every breeding magazine and became impressed with the kind of cattle they were breeding in Kansas. We also started looking at Tidy Burke Elevation,” Miller said.
 
Tidy Burke Elevation was a descendent of the Holstein line at the Pabst Farm in Wisconsin, where they were experimenting with artificial insemination as early as 1931.
 
Miller recalls that his cousin was very interested in following the Rag Apple bloodlines. “But I convinced him to try Tidy Burke Elevation,” he said.
 
It would be Round Oak’s first significant outcross in 20 years, and it was that suggested mating of Tidy Burke Elevation to Round Oak Ivanhoe Eve – an exceptional dam with that Rag Apple foundation — that resulted in Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation.
 
When the bull was born in the summer of 1965, Miller was manager of the Virginia Animal Breeders. “One of our directors and fieldmen encouraged us to consider the young Elevation calf. Some on the sire committee liked the dam Ivanhoe Eve and they also liked Ivanhoe Lady. This put their attention on Round Oak,” he said.
 
The Virginia Animal Breeders sire committee went to look at the bull, and they ended up buying him. “The organization never paid over $1000 for a young calf from a Virginia breeder,” Miller recounts. “But they purchased Elevation for $2800, and the rest — as they say — is history.”
 
Round Oak retained some semen rights in the deal, and they showed him as a yearling in 1966, according to Miller. In fact, the Bull of the Century, “took second place at both shows, he was never first.”
 
Though he never placed first in a show, Elevation was co-sampled by MD-WVA Bull Stud prior to the Select Sires merger. “They decided they wanted to use him, and it’s been said that Elevation really built the barns at Sire Power and Select Sires.”
 
That may explain why he was laid to rest in the front lawn of the Plain City, Ohio stud in 1979.
 
But in those early days, the new federation of organizations was struggling with the enlarged pool of genetics and young sire programs. Select Sires moved everything to Michigan and Ohio and an organizational structure was created.
 
Miller recounted how industry greats like Dr. Jim Nichols and Dick Chichester steered Select Sires as a federated organization. But it was Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation “that financially pulled Select Sires together and helped solidify it as an organization.
 
“Elevation helped identify who is Select Sires, which was made up of organizations serving 18 states,” Miller explained. “We were working to develop a market throughout the United States.”
 
As the organization expanded its territory, Elevation’s daughters were starting to produce. “They were exceptional for production and type,” said Miller. “His first proof was +800 and his second proof was +1000 and his type and pattern were outstanding, which he was becoming recognized for at that point. This was a great leap for production and uniformity and good type, which brought on the clamor beyond what anyone would have dreamed.”
   
Producing the NoNaMe Fond Matt family, which included Kanza Matt Tippy earning All-American and Supreme Champion at World Dairy Expo, certainly helped with that national name recognition. Several famous sons — Mars Tony, Pete, Sexation, Starbuck and Tradition — added to his noteworthiness .
 
As Select Sires became affiliated with Bill Clark’s Worldwide Sires, Elevation both provided and rode the wave of interest — and the continued improvements in the technology of freezing semen — that took the organization to international acclaim.
 
“I’ve always believed — looking at the genetics end of the dairy business — if we fully use the better sires and have them priced right, every dairyman can profit,” Miller observes.
 
On the subject of genomics – which has exploded since this June 2011 interview – Miller noted that it does “offer dairymen some opportunities today that they never had before… if the genetics are right.”
 
“Genomics have changed the industry practically overnight,” he explained. “We’ve come through an era where a national convention sale had to have animals from the Carnations, Elmwoods and Pabst — the nationally known prefixes. With genomics, the playing field has changed.
 
  “With good management, dairymen can buy genomics and be in business using that pattern,” Miller observed. “But we have to wait a few years to see where the genomics take us. At this point, it’s the ‘in’ thing. it is a new frontier as was embryo transfer and more recently the use of sexed semen. ”
 
That’s why Miller holds true to the belief that “type will always prevail. With good management practices and improved cow comfort, unprecedented levels of production are achieved with the genetic potential made possible by the genetic progress of bulls like Elevation on the breed.
   
Genomics actually began with the sequencing of information toward figuring out how genes work. According to a Smithsonian article on the subject, this is the foundation for understanding complex interactions that result in economic traits and that the cow representing all Holsteins in the early draft of the bovine genome is Wa-del Blackstar Martha , a fourth-generation daughter of Elevation . Elevation is one of 96 bulls from all breeds to have complete DNA sequencing.

The idea that each species has a genome is an “average value” and that in nature all genomes are individual with no two being exactly alike (not even twins). Part of the sequencing that led genomics to this point, according to the Smithsonian Museum’s account, began by “opening livestock husbandry’s greatest treasure chest, in part with the key of America’s greatest animal.”
Miller explains it this way: “We can do this now because we’ve had an Elevation. Breeding registered cattle is often called the romance of the industry, and there is also the bottom line for the future that the upcoming dairymen have to be realistic.”
For Miller, however, a life and career in dairy cattle breeding come down to more than the resulting cows. “It’s the people — so many wonderful people in this industry — I’ve known through three and four generations, and seeing what the new generations are able to achieve… That’s what it’s all about,” said the lifetime member of the Virginia Holstein Association with a broad grin as he cites Virginia’s own Hardesty family of Harvue Roy Frosty fame as an example.
   
Miller appreciates the chance to have worked with Select Sire member staffs and representatives in other regions as the organization grew. “The chances people like my friend Mark Comfort (who founded what became Select Sires / Canada) took to start out; there are so many people breeding good cattle, not just the elite. The opportunities and tools are there now for the aspirations of young people to be involved,” he said.
 
I don’t feel that I have enough analysis to say more at this point. There is no question that most of the better sires that we see at the top were good sires to start with. It looks like we are going in the right direction, and we are at the point, now, where more information will be coming out and more analysis and opportunities to really evaluate it.
 
Miller appreciates the chance to have worked with Select Sire member staffs and representatives in other regions as the organization grew. “The chances people like my friend Mark Comfort (who founded what became Select Sires / Canada) took to start out; there are so many people breeding good cattle, not just the elite. The opportunities and tools are there now for the aspirations of young people to be involved,” he said.
 
I don’t feel that I have enough analysis to say more at this point. There is no question that most of the better sires that we see at the top were good sires to start with. It looks like we are going in the right direction, and we are at the point, now, where more information will be coming out and more analysis and opportunities to really evaluate it.
   
Miller also has appreciated mentors like Professor Paul Reaves and Holstein breeders Leonard Crowgey and Nelson Gardner and Harold Craun — along with his uncle and cousin Charles and Ronald Hope of Round Oak Farm.
 
“I appreciate the opportunities they gave me to become involved in the progress of their expanding herds,” Miller reflects. “It was a great opportunity for a youngster in school.”
 
Apart from seeing the development of Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation, a sire whose ‘career’ was inextricably intertwined with his own, Miller says a very rewarding part of his more-than-a-half-century career in cattle breeding and marketing was to develop these markets for Select Sires.
 
“I have always enjoyed working with the family-sized herds. And I’m proud to have lived long enough to see what is happening in the breed today,” Miller relates. He cites several books that chronicle the progress and history of the Holstein breed very well and are enjoyable to read: Horace Backus’ series of Holstein breed histories, Pete Marwick’s The Chosen Breed and The Holstein History and Phil Hashiders’ Creating Balance Between the Form and Function.
 
Among other recognitions, George A. Miller was the recipient of the National Association of Animal Breeders Distinguished Service Award in the early 1990s and more recently the 2012 Virginia Dairy Industry Achievement Award.
——————-
 
PHOTO CAPTION:
 
George Miller has a lot of Holstein memorabilia, including portraits and catalogs that he continues to market as keepsakes to colleagues in the industry. That includes more than 2000 pictures of Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation’s Excellent daughters, and the portrait of Elevation pictured here on his computer at the Select Sires booth during the trade show when the 2011 National Holstein Convention was held in his home state of Virginia. At age 86, George lives near Columbus, Ohio since retiring after decades as a breeder and marketer first with Virginia Animal Breeders and then with the Plain City, Ohio-based Select Sires after they merged.

 






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