Weighing as much as a pick-up truck but tender enough to enjoy frequent head scratches, a Brooklyn farm’s cow named Gigi shattered the world’s record for milk production last year.
This left the dairy industry spinning like a chocolate shake in the blender.
One prominent ag publication, Harvest, gushed about this “once a generation” cow and described her as having “limitless talent.” Everyone – from trade magazine Bullvine to National Public Radio – calls her queen.
What Gigi did in 2015 was produce 74,650 pounds of milk. For perspective, that’s nearly 24 gallons daily. It almost tripled the annual production from other top-notch cows and broke the previous five-year-old world record by a couple of swimming pools filled with milk.
Behind every star cow is a stellar farmer. In this case, it is Brooklyn’s Bob Behnke, a 1989 Oregon High School grad, who said he’s been on the farm forever.
“I suppose,” said Behnke, 44, “you could say I grew up in the barn.”
Destiny from birth
Born in late 2006, Gigi seemed destined to create a legacy. As a calf, she won blue ribbons at the Dane County Fair and Stoughton Junior Fair. At age two, already gorgeously hefty, she appeared on the cover of an international dairy company’s magazine.
By five, Gigi was named Star of the Breed for Holsteins at the World Dairy Expo.
And each time after giving birth to four calves – Gina, Giggles, Ginger and Gorgeous – her milk production skyrocketed, culminating in 2015’s near-miraculous milk production.
“It’s mind-boggling,” Behnke said. “I’m in awe of it.”
The fourth birth gave Gigi seemingly superpowers to produce milk.
“She had another calf and all of a sudden started milking that much more,” Behnke said. “It was not a bucket list to have this happen. It was simply trying to meet her energy needs, much like a professional or Olympic athlete.”
Behnke did not consider the milk-producing record until late last year. Gigi maintained a “crazy big” appetite throughout the year, munching on corn, alfalfa, grass and soybeans.
Owning the Bur-Wall Farm – named after his grandfather Burgess, who began the Brooklyn area operation 73 years ago, and his father Wallace, who continued its legacy – Behnke has 60 cows. He knew to give Gigi extra pampering.
As a result, Gigi enjoys her own roomy pen to keep her comfortable and relaxed, two factors in milk production, Behnke said.
Behnke’s wife, Denise, works for a milk equipment company and travels frequently. Their nighttime phone conversations (Bob is up at 5 a.m. daily) prompted him to go to the barn and give Gigi fresh feed. That helped to keep Gigi’s production up, he said.
Despite the enjoyment from Gigi’s record, the Behnkes received some backlash.
Animal rights activists have posted negative online comments about Gigi’s well- being.
Behnke responded to the criticism: “It was all done naturally,” he said. “There were no synthetic hormones given.”
A National Public Radio report in March heaped praise on Gigi – then shifted to fears about animal welfare as cows become bigger and produce previously unseen amounts of milk. Temple Grandin, a Colorado State University animal science professor, expressed concern about massive cows’ longevity, health and comfort.
No one has criticized Behnke specifically, but he worries about misinformation. He said that Gigi and his other cows are seen by a veterinarian once a month and knows that a comfortable cow will produce well. At 5-foot-2, Gigi is tall but her height is not overly excessive.
Behnke remained protective of Gigi. He asked that no photos of her be taken for this story because she would need extensive grooming for an appropriate picture. Gigi, after all, is potentially valuable for genetics.
“We’re trying to make duplicates of her and sell her genetics around the world as well as use them ourselves,” Behnke said. “We are harvesting embryos. It’s too soon to know if it will work. She has to produce enough embryos to be profitable. Time will tell. There is no farmer in America who is in production agriculture now that is making money.”
Gigi also already has granddaughters and great-granddaughters on Behnke’s farm. Her bloodline’s future is bright.
What about the future of Gigi, who still produces ample milk?
“It’s uncertain,” Behnke said. “She will tell us. I’m not afraid that she gets pregnant again and her (massive milk production) begins all over. But she can’t ever do it at the same (record) pace.”
Others marvel at Gigi. John Meyer, CEO of Holstein Association USA said, “The milk production record is a true credit to not only Gigi, but to the Behnke family’s breeding and management expertise.”
This fall, Gigi will not go to the World Dairy Expo in Madison. Instead, elite visitors will come to the Behnke’s Brooklyn farm to see her.
For now, Gigi’s intelligence stands out to Behnke. Gigi was able to open her pen gate and graze in the field until the Behnke added a special lock.
“She’s a diva,” Behnke said.
How does a cow step out as a diva?
“When she looks at you, she wants attention. Very much like a human being, she knows she’s good,” he said. “She’s been special from day one.”