A Glass of Milk with Doug Blair

Doug Blair is a legend in the Canadian Dairy Industry. With a long list of contributions and awards, Doug has had an exceptional career devoted to the advancement of dairy genetics in this country and around the world.

I’m lucky to call Doug both a friend and a mentor. Now that we live only 10 minutes apart, I’ve had a lot of opportunities to visit Doug’s extensive library, filled with complete sets of Holstein and Jersey herd books, catalogues from some of the most exclusive sales of our time, and several books that extensively chronical the history of the Holstein breed. Being a history buff myself, I’m fascinated by the way Doug traces the lineage of some of the breed’s most prominent families and have been able to do so myself under Doug’s guidance. But some of the best afternoons are spent just listening to the stories Doug has to tell of his travels over the past decades and the great people he’s had the pleasure of interviewing.

In this edition of “Glass of Milk”, I spent another session in the library talking to Doug about his career, the changes he’s seen in the industry and his love for Holstein history.

Talk a little about your history and some of things you’ve been involved in over the course of your career. DB: I was born and raised in Langley, BC, on my family’s farm Langview Holstein Farm. In 1964, I graduated from the University of British Columbia (UBC) with a degree in Agriculture. I helped start Western Breeders Service in 1968 and was the CEO of that company through a merger when it became Alta Genetics. I retired from the CEO position at Alta Genetics in 2002. I was the founding President of the Canadian Association of Animal Breeders and Canadian Embryo Exporters Association, and have served on the board of the Canadian Livestock Exporters Association, Canadian Dairy Network and the National Association of Animal Breeders in the U.S.

I was a partner in Nicola Ranch for 10 years, which is located in Merritt, BC, and had a commercial cow/calf operation with 2000 brood cows. I was also a partner in RockyMountain Holsteins for 10 years with Glen Hockley and Dr. David Chalack. We bred several top-quality animals and held seven RockyMountain High Sales from 2005-2013.

Doug’s tracing from the pages of the Holstein Journal

How did you get interested in Holstein history and tracing cow lineage?
I started reading the Holstein Journal as a young boy on the farm when I first learned to read. I traced cows out of the Journal and made my own little herd book, giving them my own names. I used the prefix ‘Springbank’ a lot, I must have liked that one! Some of my tracings even had progeny over time. I would have little competitions with my brothers tracing cows and I was always the judge. I always knew all the cows and their pedigrees in the barn at home and was always interested in lineage.

I had the opportunity to study under Dr. J.C Berry at UBC, who developed the Breed Class Average (BCA) system in Canada and pushed AI studs to start young sire programs. Originally, I had planned to go back to the farm but with three younger brothers on the farm, I decided I better go out and get a job. That is when I got a job as a fieldman at the BCAI Centre. There was no AI stud in prairies, so we were able to fill that need with Western Breeders Service and we bought our first bull in 1972, High Silo Haven Jetstar, who became a Class Extra sire.

Why do you think it’s important to keep the study of Holstein History going?
It’s a bit like archeology, every animal is part of a foundation. I think it’s important to know the history of our breed and have the opportunity to study it from time to time. I personally research direct maternal lines and sire stacks and have traced roughly 2000 to the first herd book entries. I finally learned how to use excel so now I’m putting them in a spreadsheet. I think preserving the history should be the mandate of Holstein Canada.

Doug was inducted into the Canadian Agriculture Hall of Fame in 2004

What is your most favourite interview you’ve ever done?
There has been so many of them! I have them all on a vast collection of cassette tapes right now but I’m hoping to upgrade that technology soon! My favourite interviews are with George Clemens, the longtime Secretary Manager of Holstein Canada; Art Hay of Strathmore Holsteins, who was considered the top showman of his era; Jim Cavanaugh, the longtime secretary of Jersey USA. The longest interview I’ve done was with Pete Heffering, which took place over 3 days, and the most amusing interview was probably David Younger from Hilltop Hanover Farms. Other names include Horace Backus, Curtis Clark, Bob Shore, Bert Stewart, Lowell Lindsey and Pete Blodgett; it’s been very interesting.

Of all the awards you’ve won, which is your most cherished one?
I was named an Honourary Klussdendorf winner in 2007 at the World Dairy Expo. I was always interested in showing throughout my life, despite being heavily involved in the business side of the industry and not actually in the show ring. I have tremendous respect for the people who prepare cows and get them to the ring so to be named among that group was a real honour.

Receiving the Certificate of Superior Accomplishment this year at the National Holstein Convention was also a huge honour, since they’ve only given that out 22 times since 1954! I’ve been a part of four Master Breeder Shields as well, three with our home farm Langview, and one with Alta Genetics.

Doug with his favourite bull – Duregal Astre Starbuck

Who is the favourite cow or bull you’ved owned or admired over the years?
Duregal Astre Starbuck is my favourite bull. He had a tremendous impact on the breed, siring cows with great feet and legs. He was top notch for commercial herds, but still made enough fancy ones that he was Premier Sire twice at both Madison and the Royal. He invoiced $17 million in sales over his career. Jetstar is also pretty special to me because he was the first bull I selected, he was Red Carrier and was popular all over the world.

One of the cows I’ve most admired over the years is Acme Star Lily. She was Grand Champion at the Royal three times and was Grand and Reserve Champion at World Dairy Expo. She was a great cow to work with.

What do you think has been the most valuable tool developed for Holstein breeders?
Reliable bull proofs. That has been a great assist in Canada for sure. Also, frozen semen and genomics have been major game changers.

What do you think is the biggest challenge currently facing breeders?

DB: Difficult question! There are so many challenges all the time. I’d say breeding cattle that are relevant to the commercial dairyman. American dairyman are suffering badly right now so it’s hard for them to keep up their interest in breeding when the low price of milk has created so much financial strain. In Canada we are super fortunate that our supply management system is preserved so we can continue to invest in breeding cattle.

Doug at home in the library!

We are gradually moving to more medium-sized cows in the show ring which makes them more relevant. I think it’s worthwhile to keep looking at new ideas. If we can make more classes for milking animals, we could potentially encourage more breeders to bring their cows out to shows.

What is your favourite thing about the Royal Winter Fair?
I love the atmosphere! I attended the Royal for the first time in 1958 and I’ve missed very few since then. The way the cattle are presented in the barns and the show ring is absolutely fabulous. I won my first trip as the BC 4-H Champion Dairy Cattle Judge and during the week we had the opportunity to visit the jet engine plant in Brampton. I knew the Sale of Stars was happening at that time though and that a famous bull, Rosafe Citation R, would be selling, so I really didn’t want to see jet engines. I asked my leader if I could skip the tour and go to the sale, and he said, “if you ask me I have to say no, but if you don’t show up I’ll know where you are.” Citation R sold for $30,000 that day, which was big money at the time, and went on to be a very influential bull! I was happy I skipped the tour!