Our thoughts are with Sheeknoll Farms over the loss of their beloved “Thomas.” We featured Thomas in our 2016 Fall Special Edition of Cowsmo, and it seems fitting to share it here, in the wake of her passing.
By Sarah Olson Schmidt
Walking into the Alliant Energy Center in Madison, Wis., and looking for a good seat on Saturday afternoon of the Holstein show at World Dairy Expo is no easy task. As luck would have it, I walked in and spotted my family and friends who had just walked with Sheeknoll Durham Arrow — affectionately known as “Thomas” — to the ring.
We began talking about the cows, looking up their pedigrees in the show catalog, and reminiscing about past Expo winners. We all agreed — Thomas looked good. What we didn’t know at the time was just how much Judge Pat “Cowboy” Conroy would agree.
Barn 2, Row 15
Thomas was the “end cow” of a six-head string of Minnesota friends — one animal from each person’s family farm. They called Barn 2, Row 15 their Madison home for the week. As many can relate, the decision to come to Expo was one discussed throughout the month of September: “Should we take her? Is she good enough? Is it worth the time away from fieldwork/school/full-time jobs?”
By 10 a.m. Saturday, it was just Thomas and my family’s cow, Laffy, who had yet to show. Nerves were not high; both cows had been eating well and making milk. They were looking good as longtime friend and cattle fitter Jared Tessmer put the finishing touches on each cow.
“What do you think?” I asked Andy Sheehan, Thomas’ owner and my dear friend and former dairy judging teammate. “I think these cows are living up to their potential this morning,” he said. His wife, Juliana, agreed and added, “That’s all we can hope for.”
I snapped a quick photo of Andy and my brother, Luke Olson, giving a “thumbs up” next to the cows — the universal sign of a good time. “They look good, boys,” Row 15 neighbor Callum McKinven said with a smile as he walked by.
Special for our two families and while seasoned experts yet not a typical occurrence, their mom, Jeannette, and our dad, Loren, would be leading the cows on the colored shavings. It made it exciting to watch ringside as my dad and Laffy placed in the top 10 of the Junior 3-year-Old class.
As Jeannette and Thomas made their way to the ring, it was, perhaps, an atypical entourage: Jeannette’s husband Robert, and each of their three children and their families. To the Sheehan family, this was not out of the norm. They’ve been doing this together for years, and their love for cows and the dairy industry is deeply rooted in southeastern Minnesota.
Sheeknoll Farms is located near Rochester, Minn., and is the partnership of three Sheehan brothers and their wives: Jim and Mary, Jerome and Karen, and Robert and Jeannette. Jim and Mary’s two sons, Steve and Ben, and now Andy has joined the partnership. The operation includes two milking facilities: a double-12 parlor and free-stall barn with 250 cows, and a 52-cow tie-stall barn.
The Sheehan name in Minnesota is synonymous with dairy. They have exhibited at county and state shows for decades. They are accomplished dairy cattle judges and coaches, dedicated dairy youth program leaders and well-spoken advocates for agriculture.
Back in 2010, Jeannette’s parents and retired dairy farmers Vernon and Olive Hupf welcomed a couple of Sheeknoll baby calves to their place as projects for their youngest grandchildren. It was then that Sheeknoll Durham Arrow received the nickname “Thomas” from grandson Dylan, who was a big fan of Thomas the Tank Engine stories.
From that point forward, the scrawny April-born calf would continue to grow and develop into the “train” of an Excellent 94-point cow she is today, and now waiting for the classifier to come in early November (EDITORS NOTE: The classifier came, and then the committee, and Thomas is now scored EX96.) Thomas calved at 2-0 and has had a calf every April since. Her daughters have been sired by Chelios, Doorman and Sid, and the Sheehans plan to start IVF soon. In her 4-year-old lactation she made more than 30,000 pounds of milk with 1,100 pounds of fat.
While she makes it look effortless, it has not been an easy ride for Thomas. Last August she became very sick after ingesting berries from a nightshade plant. The Sheehans cared her through it, dried her up early and watched as she delivered a healthy calf in April.
Her first show back in the ring was the Minnesota State Holstein Show in June — one day after the funeral of Jeannette’s father, one of Thomas’ first caretakers. She was named Grand Champion of the show that day and hasn’t lost since, adding Grand Champion of the Midwest Fall National Holstein Show to her credits.
And the crowd went wild
As the young Sheehan grandchildren played at ringside, their parents kept one eye on them and one on the ring. Those of us without children on our mind started to notice something. Judge Conroy was looking at Thomas. Like, really looking at her. Then it happened — he signaled her into first! We yelled and cheered, and it was amazing! Everyone around us was wondering who she was, who we were, and why this one cow could elicit such a reaction of sincere joy and happiness.
We knew. All of Minnesota knew. And now the Holstein world knows. By the time she walked into the ring for the selection of champion, Thomas had an audible following of fans. She is the real deal — a living replica of the true type model and fitting representative of the great Regancrest Elton Durham’s first Expo Grand Champion. The Sheehans are a wonderful family — worthy of this recognition. Their story is worth cheering for.
The 50th World Dairy Expo will be remembered as a celebration of homebred champions as six of the seven breed winners were bred and owned. This fact inspires us all and gives hope — “maybe one day we could win Expo.” Thomas could and she did, and now she will forever be known as the 2016 Grand Champion of the International Holstein Show.