A Glass of Milk With Tom Byers

I have had the privilege of knowing Tom Byers for the better part of 10 years. Whether it be classifying cows at my family’s farm, listening to him speak about the classification system at a seminar or sharing a beverage at the National Holstein Convention, Tom always has something interesting to say and you always learn something from him.
Tom has been a great ambassador for the Holstein Cow and the “Canadian Kind” for 35 years and is one of the most recognizable personalities in the industry. We had the opportunity to chat recently about his work at Holstein Canada, what he’s up to now as a “semi-retired” person and what sorts of trends he sees that will be important in the future.

Share with us some of the history of your career. How did you get into classifying?
My love of the Canadian Holstein came while I was still in Scotland. I started working for the Scotland Milk Marketing board as a technician and then a role in bull selection. From there I moved to Pioneer Holstein Breeders, a company that was importing a lot of Canadian genetics to replace cows that were lost through Foot and Mouth Disease in the 1960’s. In the late 1970’s, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Canada. We saw some beautiful herds like Hanoverhill, but we also traveled down the back roads to see some great “non-name” farms too and then you can really see how impressive breeders in this country really are. The cows were incredible!

My family and I immigrated in 1980 and I first worked at Paperman Farms in Woodstock, ON, and then rented the barn at Flettdale for a couple years. In January 1983, I had the opportunity to get into classifying. Neil Raines (Raevue) and Morris Jebsen (Elmcroft) were early mentors for me. They were both on the breed advisory committee at Holstein Canada at the time and helped a lot as I got into classification. I really respect them.

Another mentor was Dalton Hodgins. He was the Classification Coordinator in the later 80’s and he gave me a lot of opportunity to learn and move forward in this business. The 17 years I worked with Jay Shannon were also a highlight, he’s a great business man with a natural insight into our industry. I used to tell him he must have been a dairy farmer in another life!

Getting the computer up and running in 1988 was huge for Holstein Canada, we were the first country in the world to classify successfully with a computer. It helped to create better herd reports, assess strengths and weakness for a herd, and create a score based on linear weights for the various traits. Especially when we began scoring multiple breeds in 2005, it has improved industry cooperation to be able to calculate a scored based on the trait desirability in each breed.

What has been the most memorable moment in your career?
: There’s always something new every day so that is a highlight! Working in a great industry with great people has been incredible. I definitely wouldn’t be where I am or do what I’ve done without a great team.

Tom and his wife, along with the Holstein Canada team, celebrate his CDN award in 2013

In 2013, I was presented the Dairy Cattle Improvement Industry Distinction Award by the Canadian Dairy Network in appreciation for my contributions to dairy cattle improvement in Canada, this was a tremendous highlight for me! It shows how great Canada really is and how much opportunity is here – if you want to make it you can, it doesn’t matter what country you came from originally.

As far as cows go, I’d say the day we made Davidsons Raider Bronze the first 97-point cow in Canada was very special. I had been scoring on Vancouver Island and John Peeters asked me to come to the Fraser Valley because there was a cow I needed to re-visit with him. There was a terrible storm the next day and the ferry ride was rough. We met at Richard Bosma’s place and John’s rental car was missing a side mirror and had a hole in it from the Bosma trampoline! The weather was black, windy and storming hard. I said to John “this cow better be worth it!” As I’m leaving Bosma’s driveway I got hit by a loader tractor – the weather was so bad you couldn’t see anything. The front of the car was damaged but still drivable so off we went anyway. Bronze was worth it, I knew it as soon as I saw her. John said it me “this cow typifies everything that we look for in a Canadian Holstein.” It was really special to be a part of that.

What are you doing now in your semi-retired life?
: I’m working more on the proAction® side now, assessing cattle in herds that don’t classify. I think it’s great that the classifiers are doing the assessments for this program because it really validates the breed and shows commitment to Animal Welfare which consumers need to see.

I’m still doing some international training for foreign customers as well as being an assistant mentor to the classification team. I’m involved in the continual development of our “True Type” models as well. We update the model every 10 years or so to give our members something to strive for and also something that relates to the cow of the future.

What do you think has most impacted the purebred business during your tenure with Holstein Canada?
: Genomics for sure. Whether that’s positive or negative I haven’t decided. I think it’s good to keep your eyes open and use daughter proven sires as well to keep the uniformity that we have in the breed. Genomics will come into play in health traits and fertility, things that can be studied through the science of the genome and that is huge. Any progress we’ve made is through classification and milk recording, genomics wouldn’t exist without them. You need to have some guidelines and if you don’t have classification and milk recording then there couldn’t be benchmarks.

What is the biggest challenge producers are facing in Canada?
The pressure on our supply management system is huge but I think we will survive it. It’s here to stay. Animal welfare is another challenge, but that’s why I love the proAction® program it’s the right thing for our industry.

What do you think will be important for our industry in the future?
TB: A2A2 milk is going to be a big consideration in the future and it’s well on its way already. Polled Holsteins will also be the way to move in the next 10 years. PP bulls are becoming increasingly popular and once the LPI of PP bulls catches up with the horned sire options, then why wouldn’t you use them!