Holbert's work with National Jersey Cattle Association takes her around the globe

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National Dairy Month Salute

By Ron Benningfield

As a national representative for the American Jersey Cattle Association, Patty McDowell Holbert has traveled to all 48 contiguous states, appraising and promoting the popular breed of dairy cattle.
“I’ve spent time in places where the wind chill was minus 40 degrees and other places where it was hot,” said Holbert, who lives on B.F. Brown Road. “The good thing about my job is I get to travel; the bad thing is I have to travel.”
She was a natural for the job she started in 2004 as she has been around cattle all her life, coming from a line of dairy farmers.  
Her grandfather, Raymond McDowell, bought the farm she calls home in 1945. Four out of the five brothers in his family were dairy farmers, two raising Guernseys and two, Holsteins.
“Most everybody back then had a family milk cow that was either a Jersey or Guernsey,” said Holbert. Her father, Rev. Gordon McDowell, continued the dairy family tradition, milking from 1948 to 1995.  
Holbert bought the farm from her grandfather in 1989 and continued the Grade A dairy until 2003.  
During that time, she was active in the Guernsey Association, serving as the state association’s secretary and co-chairing the World Guernsey Conference in 1998.    
She also hosted a conference at her farm that was attended by Guernsey breeders from 16 countries. At that time, the herd of around 70 included about 75 percent Guernseys and 20 percent Jersey cows.
“We added Jerseys because they are the most cost effective of all breeds,” she said. “The average Jersey yields about 18,000 pounds of milk per year, produces milk with high butterfat content, and the breed has few problems calving.”
Milk prices, historically volatile, plummeted in 2003 to $10 per hundred weight, drastically lower than the $24 she was getting when she purchased the farm.
“The break-even point was around $15 per hundred weight,” she said. “To make money, I would have had to invest a lot more, and with increasing feed and fuel prices, too, I decided to stop the production.”
While she was looking for a job, a friend of hers who worked for the National Jersey Association told her of an opening. She applied and began work as a rep and appraiser in 2004 for the association headquartered in Ohio.
‘Something genetic’
“I think there’s something genetic in a person that predisposes you to work with cattle,” she said about her satisfaction at being able to continue working with cattle. Her dairy family background and knowledge of Guernsey and Jersey breeds qualified her for the duties at hand.
Only the second female to ever be hired by the association in her position, she spends most of the year visiting farms where she registers and appraises Jerseys. She also does a lot of public relations work as a rep for Ohio and Kentucky and judges cattle at fairs occasionally.
As an appraiser, she gives farmers information about the strengths and weaknesses of their cows. The biological traits she measures are related to the economic value of a cow, and the information she provides helps farmers in making breeding decisions to improve herd profitability.
Those profits can be quite substantial for the small breed that originally came from the Channel island of Jersey.
For example, one champion show cow, Hurionia Centurion Veronica, sold for $85,000 at public auction in 2003.
“With the information obtained from the appraisal, farmers can breed for protein, fat or milk production because they will know exactly how much milk fat and protein each cow produces,” she said.      
To appraise the animals, she assigns scores according to 14 physical traits including height at the hips, width and depth of chest, rump and foot angles, udder height, width, depth and teat placement.
On her business travels, she has experienced great ranges in herd numbers from a girl whose herd consisted of two Jerseys to a ranch in Texas sporting 13,000 cows.  
One of her most unexpected places to find a Jersey herd was on Long Island, New York, where a farmer in Bridgehampton milked 18 cows.  
“He made cheese and sold it at a local farmers’ market there,” Holbert said.
Fewer and bigger
Everywhere she goes, she notices the trend is for fewer and larger dairies.
LaRue County, for example, according to Gordon McDowell, had 120 dairies in 1957. Today, only four are in operation.
“The largest farms can bargain for the lowest prices on feed and fuel and though I think there’ll always be small farms with one or two milk cows, the trend is definitely toward big operations,” said Holbert.
She continued, “The small farms that continue to operate will do so by niche marketing, finding a specific product that satisfies specific needs and wants.”