A lifetime of Jersey cattle, Barlass’ passion burns strong

Preface: This is an article I wrote that appeared in the May 1 edition of Agri-View but I thought I would share it here, too. Enjoy!

ImageWalking into George Barlass’ Janesville home, you are immediately greeted by a Jersey or two.

A quick tour around the first level of George and Shirley’s home reveals many Jersey knick-knacks, artwork and multiple collector spoons.

Moving downstairs, the basement displays an even more prized collection including Judge’s pins, awards, newspaper clippings and photos of champions cover the walls leading to shelves of trophies and silverware from 70 years worth of cattle shows.

George pulls a tarnished trophy off the shelf causing his wife of 60 years, Shirley, to smile and roll her eyes as she knows the story that he is about to tell.

He reminisces about the time he showed against her in 4-H showmanship at the Rock County Fair, and won. She came in second, just shy of the trophy.

Whether or not he tells the story to tease her, love and pride fill the room, even when the trophy was earned some 70 years ago.

At the time, George, 82, may not have known how the Jersey breed would impact the rest of his life, or how he would make his own mark. He certainly did not know the space he would need for all of the family’s awards.

During his life, George developed and bred multiple strong cow families and bulls that have sired numerous show champions at all show levels, including the first Jersey cow to ever win the Supreme Champion title at World Dairy Expo, Gil-Bar Unique Bonnie.

An Excellent 94-point daughter of Gil-Bar Valiant Betsy, in 1984, Bonnie won the Jersey Jug Futurity at the All-American Jersey Show in Louisville, Ky., the same year that she won her first World Dairy Expo championship title. Later she was exhibited by Norm Nabholz of West Union, Iowa, and won Supreme Champion at World Dairy Expo.

Well-known Ettas Master Babe, shown by George’s son Gordy, was the first cow to win back to back championships at World Dairy Expo. Babe produced Gil-Bar Gem Badger, a Master Gem son and one of George’s many bulls.

ImageGil-Bar Farm, which had been in the family since 1927, has exhibited more grand champions in the first 25 years of World Dairy Expo than any other exhibitor.

The early show days ranged from the old time Jersey shows of polished horns and blankets, to massive show strings of 35 animals.

“Oh, there have been so many different experiences,” George says about his show days.

In 1972, Gil-Bar was at the All-American Dairy Show in Columbus, Ohio, when the barn caught fire.

“The flames were whipping and everyone was untying cattle. We had a brand new sign and a friend ran back in and got the farm sign,” George recalls.

Shirley adds that the farm lost some of the tack and all of the individual cow signs but no animals or people were injured.

That same year George was presented with the Klussendorf Memorial Trophy, awarded to a showman who exemplifies the ability, character, friendliness and sportsmanship practiced by Arthur D. Klussendorf.

“That is probably one of my greatest honors,” George says. “Along with being inducted into the Ag Hall of Fame last month and marrying Shirley.”

The couple was married shortly after George returned home from the Korean War; a relationship that started with the Rock County Fair showmanship trophy.

A graduate of Farm and Industry Short course at UW-Madison, George bought Gil-Bar Farm from his parents in 1978.

“It’s been his whole life,” says Gordy. “When he was in the war, all he thought about was the Jersey herd back home.”

Gil-Bar has bred or developed 108 Excellent cows, 19 All-Americans, 29 Reserve All-Americans and 23 Honorable Mentions. But George says that “108 Excellent cows really isn’t that many but the barn only housed 30” and their steel barn, the first Jamesway steel barn ever constructed, held 20 animals.

Other breeders have taken this vision and created strong cow families of their own.

“In Wisconsin and Illinois, he has influenced a lot of breeders in breeding show cattle. He has always had a really keen eye for a bull that would transmit that show power and he has made some purchases that did fabulous things for him. I remember when he bought Sparkler’s dam, Lamberts Master Sparkette,” says Marion Barlass, George’s nephew’s wife, who recently presented George with induction in the Rock County Agricultural Hall of Fame.

The apple of George’s eye, Gil-Bar Unique Sparkler by Gil-Bar Snowlad Unique, has sired some of the better bulls in the breed for transmitting type like Furor, Giller and Primetime not to mention a few big show winners like Stephen Sparkler Vera, 2009 World Dairy Expo Grand Champion.

More recent sires that have the Sparkler influence include Hired Gun and Tequila, bulls that produce high type females.

The Gil-Bar breeding philosophy of high type cows that produce for a number of lactations is still evident today with Gordy, who bought the farm in 1990 and milks about 100 Jersey cows with his son Kyle.

Gordy and his wife Michelle have three other children, Ryan, Aaron and Ethan, who all want to return to the farm. He says that future plans include transitioning the boys into the farm and potentially adding a milking parlor at another location, while still keeping some of the higher genetic animals on the home farm.

In addition to showing and breeding high caliber cattle, George is known for his work in the middle of the ring as a judge at the county, national and international levels.

He has judged in eight countries, 26 states and numerous counties, noting that judging at the Royal Winter Agricultural Fair in Toronto, Canada, was one of the highlights. The beautiful cattle, fancy restaurants and good hospitality make this his favorite show.

Until about 2 years ago, George continued to judge.

“My memory is not as good as it needs to be and I don’t want to be like Brett Favre. I don’t want people to start telling me that I should retire,” George says jokingly. “I don’t know how it all happened but it’s been a great experience. I’ve met so many good people.”

Like many farm kids, George, received his first registered heifer when he joined 4-H in 1941. Of course it was a Jersey.

“4-H was a big part of our lives back then,” adds Shirley, a Guernsey girl.

That significant role has continued as George coached 4-H judging teams and has taken in many kids to teach them the show business and about the Jersey breed.

Both Gordy and George help young breeders get their start in the Jersey industry, ranging from youth working with project calves to Holstein breeders interested in branching out to the Jersey breed.

“Without my Jersey cows, I would have never left Janesville,” George says. With his family and cows, he’s traveled the world.

I never wanted to be a Wife.

I hate the term “wife.” Another good one by Dairy Carrie.

The Adventures of Dairy Carrie... I think I Need a Drink!

dairy towels drying on the line.

Some little girls grow up dreaming of being someone’s Wife. That wasn’t me.

To be fair, I also didn’t grow up dreaming of being a dairy farmer.

Veterinarian, Ballerina, Barrel Racer, Interpreter for the Deaf… Those were all things I thought I would be when I “grew up”. Turns out that I hate studying and homework, look horrible in a leotard, have zero balance and can’t shut up long enough with my own thoughts to be responsible for communicating someone else’s ideas. There were other careers along the way, but one that never crossed my mind was Wife.

Not dreaming about being a Wife doesn’t mean that I never wanted to get married, being married has always been something that I knew I wanted. To me being married meant that I had found my partner in life. Hubs and I have been partners for 11 years, he’s been my husband…

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Telling your ag story with or without social media

Preface: This is an article I wrote that appeared in the Feb. 26 edition of Agri-View but I thought I would share it here, too. Enjoy!

Each farm, big or small, organic or conventional, or somewhere in-between, has a unique story.

Like Holstein spots, no two cows have the exact same pattern, and no two farms have the same histories, management styles, generations behind the farm or overall experiences.

Why does this matter? As the farming population shrinks to only 1 to 2 percent, the average American is about three generations removed from agriculture. This means fewer Americans understand what happens on a farm and where their food comes from and who grows it.

Curiosity and questions about production agriculture, however, are becoming more common among the masses.

This is in part due to the natural interest in where food comes from and agriculture depiction from groups like Compassion over Killing, Mercy for Animals, Animal Liberation Front and most prominently, the Humane Society of the United States, who use scare tactics to gain public trust and push a vegan agenda.

“The people that are against animal ag, or us having the ability to choose what is best for our farms are loud, but they are not the

Dairy Carrie offers her insight on how to tell your unique farm story.
Dairy Carrie offers her insight on how to tell your unique farm story.

majority. They have time, they have money and they have star power on their side,” explains Carrie Chestnut Mess, better known as Dairy Carrie to her online followers, who spoke at the Landmark Services Cooperative Real Farm Life Summit on Feb. 19.

With constant negative imagery floating around large media, farmers of all kinds must find a way that works for them to tell their individual, transparent story to their network.

“A lot of people think we need to educate these people. We need to educate them on where their food comes from. What do we do instead of educate them? Can we influence our customers?” says Chestnut Mess who chooses to use social media to share her agriculture knowledge by documenting her family’s 100-cow dairy in Lake Mills.

The first step in speaking with consumers is determining who they are, Chestnut Mess says.

“Who are our customers? It’s not who we ship our milk to; our customers are the people in the grocery store. It does not matter what the middle man does, but if the people at the grocery store stop buying dairy, beef or corn flakes, that is when it’s going to come back to us.”

Chestnut Mess, whose blog “The Adventures of Dairy Carrie” has more than 1 million views to date, says there are many ways to tell your farm story.

Social media may be one of the best ways because it can reach a large network of people quickly, allowing them to see inside your farm.

Each person has a unique circle online and not everyone in that knows what you do on a day-to-day basis.

“You don’t have to make it a big production online,” Chestnut Mess advises. “Once a week, you take 2 minutes. Take a picture, or write something about your farm and put it on your personal Facebook page. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel, start with what you have.”

When telling your story, whether through blog or Facebook posts, Chestnut Mess recommends avoiding talking points, as adding a personal testimonial makes the facts relatable.

Cassandra Strommen, vice president of market development for Landmark Services Cooperative, uses social media to connect with coop members and the agricultural community.
Cassandra Strommen, vice president of market development for Landmark Services Cooperative, uses social media to connect with coop members and the agricultural community.

Cassandra Strommen, vice president of market development for Landmark Services Cooperative in Cottage Grove, says if producers are just starting out with social media to tell their story, Facebook is the best platform because of ease of use and reach potential.

But regardless of what platform you choose, the first step is to educate yourself on the capabilities of the social media channel.

Once you know how the outlet works, continue to have fun with the platform as that shows through to followers and most importantly have fun.

“We use Facebook to reach out to connect with not just our members but also non-ag people to teach them about agriculture,” she says of Landmark’s social media plan, which connects with their members and consumers. Along with Facebook, the cooperative uses Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube and a blog to tell the agriculture story and connect with their members and agricultural community.

Each communication medium has a different use in their content strategy, just like each would have a different use for a farmer.

Twitter is primarily used to connect with news media; Pinterest, to share their story through pictures and links targeting their female audience; and a blog to share management strategies and longer cooperative and member stories. And YouTube is naturally used for showcasing videos.

“We have used Facebook to humanize who we are, allowed non-members to meet our staff and see our inner workings. Facebook and our blog tell our story in words and pictures, allowing the audience to see who we really are in a space that is not completely human,” Strommen says. “Social media helps us continue to be really transparent in who we are and highlight the success of our members, the new technologies of our team and our involvement in the communities we work.”

If social media is not your thing, Chestnut Mess says there are still many ways to get involved in agvocacy (agriculture advocacy).

For example, her dairy farmer father-in-law Clem Mess, thanks consumers at Kwik Trip when he sees them buying milk. He shakes their hand and tells them he is a dairy farmer.

It is a simple as going to the grocery store and thanking the consumer. Mesa Dairy, the Mess’s farm, does not ship milk to Kwik Trip, but the person buying the product is still a customer of the dairy industry.

“We are real people. We are not magical things in offices somewhere on a factory farm. We are people in their community,” Chestnut Mess says, explaining that sharing the story adds a face behind the food.

Other ways outside of social media to communicate with consumers include becoming active in Wisconsin Farm Bureau’s Ag in the Classroom, discussing your farm with local news media and participating in agriculture-related events that touch the consumer.

“Bottom line is that people want to know their food is safe. That the animals and the earth are being well taken care of, and they have questions. Who do you want to answer those questions?” Chestnut Mess asks.

“The questions are already being answered for us, they have been for years. We are behind the ball. Our customers do not want to hear from organizations and industry groups,” she adds. “Our customers want to hear from the experts, us.”

Dear Wayne Pacelle.


The Adventures of Dairy Carrie... I think I Need a Drink!

Dear Wayne,

I hope you’re not offended by my calling you Wayne. You don’t know me but my name is Carrie Mess and I am a Wisconsin Dairy Farmer. A few weeks ago you posted an open letter to Agriculture Journalists and Leaders. While I’m just a blogger and don’t consider myself anywhere near a journalist, I do think of myself as a leader in my community, so I am taking your letter to be directed towards me and my peers.

After reading your open letter, I had a few thoughts that I wanted to share in response. I like your format so I figured an open letter back would work well. Your letter is pretty long winded so I’m just going to pull out a few bullet points to discuss.

  • It’s quite obvious that you don’t care for Rick Berman and Humane Watch. If I was in your…

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