TOWN OF HARMONY—George and Shirley Barlass have heard all kinds of jokes about their petite Jersey cows.
“I've been accused of owning goats my whole life,” 83-year-old George said, smiling.
But there's no joking about the couple's long dedication to Jerseys, known for their compact bodies and highly concentrated milk.
The American Jersey Cattle Association recently honored the Barlasses for their notable contribution to the Jersey breed.
It is no small matter.
“Our Distinguished Service Award is one of the highest honors that the breed association can bestow on anyone,” said Neal Smith, executive secretary for the American Jersey Cattle Association.
In giving the citation, the group's board of directors cited the Barlasses for their “outstanding and unselfish service for many years” to advance the Jersey breed in the United States.
George has admired Jerseys slightly longer than Shirley.
They met at the Rock County 4-H Fair as teenagers.
In 1948, both competed for the top spot in dairy showmanship. Shirley showed a Guernsey, but George won with a Jersey.
“The only reason she married me was to get the award back,” George said, smiling again.
Even as a young man, George was serious about the breed.
On their Florida honeymoon, George and Shirley visited six Jersey farms.
George explained that he was “born into Jerseys.”
His father and uncle began milking them in 1927.
George and his family farmed with his father, Alfred, his brother, Marvin, and Marvin's family for many years until 1969. George focused on the cows and built a topnotch herd at Gil-Bar Farm east of Janesville.
With the support of his family, George earned a lifetime of awards for breeding, showing and promoting mostly home-bred Jerseys. In fact, he showed more champions than any other exhibitor during the first 25 years of the prestigious World Dairy Expo in Madison.
In addition, Gil-Bar Farm has hundreds of State Fair champions and a number of Premier Breeder & Exhibitor banners from the Wisconsin and Minnesota state fairs.
In 1972 at the National Jersey Show in Columbus, Ohio, George received the Klussendorf Trophy, the highest recognition given to a dairy cattle showman in North America. Tiffany Jewelry Company of New York designed the sterling silver trophy, which is kept at Fort Atkinson's Dairy Shrine.
George no longer shows cattle, but during his career he also won the Premier Breeder Award at the Wisconsin State Fair 30 times and at the national show of the American Jersey Cattle Association three times.
YEARS OF JUDGING
In addition to showing cattle, George has judged every major dairy show in the United States and Canada.
Among the shows he has judged are World Dairy Expo, Waterloo Cattle Congress in Iowa, Toronto's Royal Winter Fair in Canada and the Royal Easter Show in Sydney, Australia.
In 1986, George even judged Queen Elizabeth's cattle at England's National Jersey Show.
As a judge, he has traveled more than 250,000 miles in the United States, Canada and seven other countries. One of his stops included the Isle of Jersey, where the breed originated.
George and Shirley have visited the royal farm in Windsor, England, three times to see the queen's Jersey herd. They even met the queen in 1992 during the World Jersey Conference.
“I tell people the Jersey cow got us around the world,” George said.
After judging for 48 consecutive years, George retired three years ago.
“It brings back a lot of good memories,” Shirley said, as she scanned a basement filled with awards. “Our Jersey friends are the best people.”
She has volunteered at World Dairy Expo for more than 30 years, served on National Dairy Shrine committees for many years and has chaired the National Jersey Futurity Show in Kentucky and the National Jersey Convention in Wisconsin.
Shirley also edited two cookbooks to raise money for two National Jersey Conventions, received a distinguished service award from the Wisconsin Jersey Breeder Association and has been Wisconsin Jersey historian for many years. The Wisconsin Jersey Breeder Association also named her Wisconsin Jersey Wife of the Year.
Closer to home, she has been a leader of Harmony 4-H dairy promotion and won the state contest twice. She also helped establish the 4-H museum at the Rock County 4-H Fair.
OF KIDS AND COWS
George and Shirley have been married 61 years and live on the rich Rock Prairie settled by George's Scottish great-grandfather in 1842.
Two of their five children are deceased. They also have 10 grandkids and six great-grandkids.
Their son, Gordon, and his family milk Jerseys and show cattle. Gordon also judges them.
“Our life has been about kids and cows,” Shirley said proudly.
George knows he is fortunate.
“Jerseys are what I knew best,” he said. “It looks like a lot of work, but it was a way of life, and I enjoyed it.”
Anna Marie Lux is a Sunday columnist for The Gazette. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email [email protected].
Jersey numbers reflect surge in popularity
The Jersey is the fastest growing breed of U.S. dairy cattle.
In 2000, the total U.S. Jersey population made up about 3 percent of all dairy cattle. Today, Jerseys make up 11 percent—or more than a million milking cows.
The breed is popular because the cows eat less and drink less water than other breeds, but Jerseys also produce highly concentrated milk, said Neal Smith of the American Jersey Cattle Association.
“Because Jersey milk is more highly concentrated with butterfat and protein, it is more ideal for production of cheese and manufactured cheese products,” Smith said.
Jerseys also are known for:
—Smaller body size. A Jersey weighs about 1,000 pounds, about two-thirds the size of a Holstein.
—Ease with which they give birth.
—Adaptability and heat tolerance.
—A longer productive herd life.
“In production agriculture, we have to grow more food on less land as the world population increases,” Smith said. “We have to be more efficient in water use and the use of other resources.”
He added: “The Jersey cow is a perfect fit for those challenges.”