We featured “The Caretaker” in our Summer 2019 issue, written by Kathleen O’Keefe.
Every successful herd and show string has one. The quiet person behind the scenes that goes about taking care of the necessary details, doing things right, and keeping the cattle at the top of the priority list – the caretaker. Often, you know their face long before you know their name, but every manager of an elite group of cattle will emphasize their value. But, eventually, that hard and dedicated work is recognized on a larger stage, and so it is with New Hampshire native, Ralph Gushee.
Winner of the 2006 Klussendorf-MacKenzie Award at World Dairy Expo and of the inaugural New England Caretaker Award in 2017, Ralph has fitted, trucked, and traveled with as many famous cows as anyone in the business.
A native of East Conway, NH, Ralph grew up on a small, mixed-use farm common to New England in the 1940s and 50s. When he was a boy, their dairy herd consisted of about 15 Registered Holsteins. The farm also always had about 15 horses on hand to log the woods that supplied their two portable sawmills. Once the family bought a tractor, they could cut back on horses and had room for more cows.
After going through the two-year ag program at the University of New Hampshire, Ralph jumped at the chance to work at Brigeen Farms in 1956, where he lived with the family for 3 ½ years before hitting the road to work sales and to clip lots and lots of cattle.
The Brigeen family was instrumental in getting Ralph outfitted for the trucking business, and provided plenty of cattle to haul in the years that the export business was roaring. About that time, he also got hooked up with the New York State Guernsey herd that travelled to the National Cattle Congress in Waterloo, IA – some of the last years in which the show herds still travelled by rail car.
Over the succeeding decades, along with helping at sales and shows, he also trucked cattle upwards of 100,000 miles a year. Ralph earned his business and was entrusted with hauling some of the most valuable cows in the country, including the many-time All-American and All-Canadian, Brookview Tony Charity EX-97.
In 2001, a new investor farm and herd established itself in Connecticut, and Ralph was one of the first employees hired on at Arethusa Farm. Once the new dairy barn was built, he was asked to oversee the night shift. Hesitant at first, Ralph noted that after a week, “I loved it. I could look after those young cows that needed some more development. I could hand feed them different hay, and I had fun doing it. It feels good to know you helped make some of those good cows.”
Ralph’s got plenty of good memories of lots of great cows from Johns Lucky Barb EX-97 to Brookview Tony Charity EX-97, but his favorite made her home at Arethusa: Huronia Centurion Veronica EX-97. “I wasn’t a Jersey man before I got to Connecticut, but Veronica had the biggest heart and the greatest constitution of any cow I’ve ever known.” He laughingly remembers her strong personality as well. “Her previous owners showed her as a milking yearling at the Royal and when she got off the trailer at the farm, I asked the boys – how did you ever get her to the ring?” He took up the task of getting her to be somewhat more relaxed on the halter, and succeeded to the point where she was escorted in the ring by Norm Nabholz for many of her biggest wins. Ralph admits though, that even to end of her career, no one who ever took the halter ever took her good manners for granted!
He credits the Steve Briggs and the Briggs family as being some of the best cow people he’s ever known. Other noted mentors for Ralph include Henry Thomas, the manager of the famous Guernsey herd at McDonald Farms in New York; Gibby Muir of Lippitt Farms Ayrshires fame; and Willie Olson, who worked with most, if not all, of the great Brown Swiss herds as well as Chambric Farms in Illinois, the powerhouse Holstein show herd. All Klussendorf Award winners, Ralph commented on many of the things he learned from them and on their style of teaching, “They were old-timers, and they were strict! You went by their rules or you were gone!”
Ralph left Arethusa in 2010, and is now retired and living Fryeburg, Maine (right across the state line from where he grew up). He’s near much of his family, which includes a son, a daughter, three grandchildren, and two great-grandkids.
No doubt he’s passing on some of the knowledge he’s learned over his lifelong career with some of the finest dairy cattle on the continent. “I had a lot of good teachers. For anyone trying to get started in this business, I’d tell them the same things they told me: pay attention, listen, and when someone tells you something, do your homework! You can’t go to the show and win until you know how to do the things right at home.”