Featured in our Summer 2019 written by Julie Ashton, Gamlake Dairy made their mark where and when it counted most!
Just two years ago, the Gambonini family exhibited at World Dairy Expo for the first time. Their goal for the week was simple: place in the Top 10 with their two Holsteins in the Junior Show. Not only would Keenan and Sallie each medal, but Gamlake Dairy quickly became a name the biggest players in the Holstein show world would recognize after 2017. While their success over the last two years has made them a household name, it has been the work and dedication over the last century that has gotten them to where they are today.
A CENTURY IN THE MAKING
Silvio Gambonini purchased a ranch in Petaluma, CA, in 1913, and began a grade Holstein farm. The farm, located in the heart of wine country in Sonoma County, has remained in the Gambonini family, passed onto Earl and Ester, then George and Margaret, and now the next generation: Frank and Stacey, and their daughters, Francesca (23), Alexandra (22) and Samantha (16).
While the farm has always been home to Holsteins, Frank and Stacey saw an opportunity to cater to a growing niche market. “We transitioned to an organic herd in 2007,” Frank commented. “We already pastured our cows, had an ideal location in Petaluma, and saw the growing trend of organic milk.”
Today, the farm and all 200 cows are certified organic, with milk shipped to Sierra Organics. The herd is raised on pasture year-round, and supplemented with a mixed grain, alfalfa hay and a winter forage silage. “There are a lot of feedstuffs that aren’t available in the organic market,” noted Frank. “Products just aren’t as available, or the quality might not be as good, but we make it work with what we have.”
There are also very specific herd health regulations the farm has to follow. “Vaccinations and preventable medicine is big in organics,” Frank said. “We can still care for our cows, just with different products, like probiotics and aspirin.” All products used on the farm has to be organically sourced, manufactured properly, and the accompanying paperwork kept on file.
While their nutrition and herd health does have different protocols than what traditional farms are used to, it doesn’t limit their ability to breed for the kind of cows that most dairymen are looking for – functional, sound, healthy cows with the ability to milk. “We focus on a lot on fertility and DPR, since we can’t use hormones in our repro program,” said Frank. “And components are important since we are a pasture herd.”
The herd has a current RHA of 22,811M 3.8F 3.3P. “Because we are organic, we don’t breed heavy for production,” noted Frank. “It’s hard to feed cows organically and push for milk.”
One of Frank’s favorite bulls is Mogul, which he still uses currently. “The calves are always healthy, they calve in with good udders, and they aren’t too big for our operation.” While functional type has always been a focus for the herd, of lately, they’ve started to use more show-type bulls including Artist *RC, Crush, King Doc, Unstopabull and Ammo P. About 65% of the herd is registered, and of the classified cows, they have 11 EX, 36 VG and 49 GP.
Frank’s father, George, began buying registered Holsteins for Frank and his sisters when they were younger. “He thought it would be neat for us to show,” Frank mentioned. While Frank and his sisters would only show on the local level, the spirit of competition was ingrained in him, and that would be something he would pass along to his daughters.
DREAMS TURNED TO REALITY
Frankie, Alex and Sammie Gambonini took an interest in the dairy all at young ages. “At a very young age, I fell in love with the Holstein cow,” Alex commented. “The fact that I had no cows registered under my name didn’t deter me from thinking that every cow on Gamlake Dairy was mine for the taking.” In 2005, Frank gifted Alex her first registered cow, which further sparked passion for the dairy industry.
While the family saw moderate success at the local level, Alex had bigger goals in mind. She exhibited at the California State Show for the first time in 2012. “Ever since I had taken ‘Extra Mile’ to my first state show, I had dreamed of winning a champion title at World Dairy Expo with one of my very own cows,” she commented.
During their 4-H years, Frank gifted his girls heifers from sound, yet average cow families, “as my father always believed that we needed to earn our calves by working to get the best ones and having enough knowledge to know they are the best,” stated Alex. APGambo Atwood Keenan EX-94 is undefeated in 2019, winning Calfornia and Western Spring National.
With her passion for showing and dairy judging expanding through her teenage years, Alex continued to work hard with her animals and compete throughout California. In 2017, she showed APGambo Atwood Keenan as a Junior 3-Year-Old in the open show at the Sonoma County Fair. “John Cunningham of R-John Holsteins told me that Keenan was good enough to go to Expo,” show recalled. “He offered me the opportunity to send her back with his show string to Joe and Amber Price’s in Illinois leading up to Expo.”
The family decided to also send 5-Year-Old Gamlake Destry Sallie owned by Sammie to the show. Sallie was Reserve Grand Champion at State Fair the year before, but was dry when she went to Illinois. “Even though we didn’t know how she would calve out, we sent Sallie, too,” commented Frank. “We didn’t know if the girls would ever have a chance to show at Expo again.”
The cows made the 2000 mile trip across country in mid-August, and Sallie calved in early September. “Joe called us and said she looked really nice,” Alex recalled.
“I was incredibly thankful and appreciative to John, Joe and Amber, and to even be at Expo,” commented Alex, “but when Keenan went on to not only win the Junior 3-Year-Old class, but be named Intermediate Champion, I was beyond ecstatic.”
Sallie also held her own in class, placing third and was named Best Bred & Owned. “To have both girls have Bred & Owned winners at Expo was really special,” remarked Frank. “And both cows are from the original herd, from average cow families!” To cap it off, Keenan was selected as Bred & Owned Champion of the Junior Show. “I talked to my dad right after the show,” Frank recalled, “and he said the best moment for him was watching the show on ExpoTV and seeing Alex and Sammie walk out of the ring together and high-fiving! They got to enjoy a once-in-a-lifetime moment together.”
2017 ended on a high note, with Keenan named Junior All-American Junior 3-Year-Old and Sallie nominated Junior All-American 5-Year-Old. It was during this time that the Gambonini family formed a formed a partnership with RuAnn Dairy and Graisson and Mandy Schmidt and the cows moved to Riverdale, CA.
Both cows started out 2018 where they left 2017 off, with Sallie named Reserve Grand Champion at BC Spring Show, Reserve Senior Champion at California State Show and Western Spring National. Keenan was the winning 4-Year-Old at Western Spring and CA State Show, and was Grand Champion of the CA Junior Show for Alex in her last year as a Junior.
While Keenan wouldn’t the trip to Madison in 2018, Sallie did at over a year milking. But on this trip, it was her time to shine. Not only did she win the Aged Cow Class, she was selected as Bred & Owned Champion, Senior and Grand Champion and Reserve Supreme Champion of the Junior Show. She classified EX-94 2E a week after Madison and earned Unanimous Junior All-American honors.
Keenan freshened in January 2019, scored EX-94 in February, and once again wowed judges. She was Grand Champion at both the California State Show and Western Spring National Show. If all goes well, she’ll once again make the trip to Expo. Sallie isn’t due to calve till December, so her eyes are set to 2020.
With both cows no longer in the organic operation, they have been flushed at RuAnn. Sallie has pregnancies by Artist and Undenied, and Crush and Tatoo daughters. She also has a natural VG-85 RC Polled Addiction. Keenan has a natural Mogul daughter at Gamlake that is VG-85 and milk well, and a Namesake due in June owned by John Cunningham.
“We are so thankful for the care that RuAnn, Graisson and Mandy,” commented Alex. “They have been awesome to work with and we are excited about the future.”
And when asked about the future of Gamlake Dairy, Frank responded candidly, “Everyone knows the dairy economy isn’t great right now, so we’re looking at options so that we can keep doing what we love with the cows.” And like so many dairies in California, diversification may be the key, with a proposed vineyard in 2020 being the answer for the Gambonini family.
So far, all the girls have expressed interested to stay involved in the dairy industry. Frankie is at Grad School at Penn State in Biotechnology and Scientific Communications with a dairy emphasis; Alex starts Grad School at the University of Minnesota this fall in Applied Economics in the Ag Department; and Sammie, is just a Junior in high school, but active in FFA Junior Holstein work and looks forward to continuing her showing career.
With the support of family, and friends across the country, the Gambonini family has had the opportunity to live out lifelong dreams,. And now, with the taste of victory on a national level, they are ready and excited for the next chapter.
Written by Julie L. Ashton