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A man who’s job is getting up close and personal with cows

According to Holstein Canada, Tom Byers has officially appraised 180,000 cows since joining the company in 1983, and spending many years as head classifier. Byers begs to differ.

Tom Byers contemplates three bovine friends at his Elmira home. The Holstein Canada classifier estimates that he has examined some 300,000 cows over 30 years.[Will Sloan / the observer]
Tom Byers contemplates three bovine friends at his Elmira home. The Holstein Canada classifier estimates that he has examined some 300,000 cows over 30 years. [Will Sloan / the observer]
“Well, that would be 180,000 cows since around 2005,” he says at his Elmira home. “I’ve probably seen close to 300,000 cows, I reckon, in the 30 years, in and outside Canada.”

Don’t bother trying to divide that figure by however many days he’s worked – we can confirm that 300,000 is a lot of cows. Byers, who will be honoured with the 2013 Dairy Cattle Improvement Industry Distinction Award in September, can talk about “good models” of cows with the same authority that an automotive connoisseur might talk about a vintage car.

“Myself and the team I work with, we travel right across Canada every three-and-a-half months to evaluate the dairy cows,” he says. “In Elmira, there are guys working in this area to assess the confirmation of your cows if you’re a farmer, or a registered milk producer.”

Has he noticed any change in our nation’s cows over 30 years?

“The cows have never been better than they are today. Their udders are five inches above their hocks, they want to milk 40 kilo, we’re carving them at 22 months of age… I mean, 30 years ago we were carving them at 35 and 36…”

This is technical talk for the cow aficionado. A more practical concern: when Byers sees a steak, does he ever recoil and ask, “Bessie, what have they done to you?”

“Oh no, I love steak.”

Same with milk?

“Oh yeah. And what I think a lot of people don’t know is, our dairy and meat products are second to none. I can’t understand why people go across the border for their milk and cheese, because no drugs get into our food chain. A lot of cows in the U.S., they get a growth hormone to increase the production – it’s illegal in Canada.”

It was the quality of the Canadian cattle industry – and specifically, genetics – that inspired Byers to move with his wife and children from Scotland in 1980. Already a herdsman, he was convinced to move after travelling to the Great White North to use Canadian genetics for artificial insemination in the UK.

And in recent years, Canada’s cattle industry has only improved, Byers says. “We’re in a situation now where we have cows that are living in nice freestyle barns with waterbeds for mats to sleep on, being milked by robots,” he notes. “There’s an understanding from farmers that they’re the keepers of an animal. They know that the animal’s welfare is first and foremost.

“Within 10 miles of Elmira, we’ve got some of the best breeders in the world,” he continues. “They take care of their cows. They’re not just a form of income to them – there’s a passion to them. It’s good old-fashioned hard work, belief, and passion.”

Over the years, Byers has become part of the fabric at Holstein, representing the company and teaching skills across the world (as this article goes to press, he is examining cows in Mexico). Holstein Canada has called him “the face of the Canadian classification program.”

Co-workers are also filled with praise. “It’s not just one thing – it’s all the little things he’s done over the years,” says Bethany Muir, classification and field services. “He didn’t do it because someone was watching, or because he thought someone would care – he did it because he was passionate.

“He is the team. He’s always driving people to do their best even when they’re the most discouraged or feel they’re not right to be a classifier. He takes them aside and says, ‘I see it in you, and we wouldn’t be supporting you if we didn’t.’”

At 65, Byers is planning to retire at the end of the year, and the position of head classifier will be retired with him. Thirty years is a long time to spend in any business – “At the end of the day, there’s never a replacement for Tom Byers,” says Muir – so what has kept Byers in the cattle racket?

“I think it’s twofold – it’s the people and the cows, in that order. I have a love affair with the cows, but really it’s people who drive you.”

Well, I guess you can’t really hold a conversation with a cow.

“Well actually, I can.”

Wait – does this mean that, like Robert Redford before him, Tom Byers is the Cow Whisperer?

“Yeah, yeah. I get good answers, too.”

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