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Sowerby Recognized as Dairy Industry 'Pioneer'
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The National Dairy Shrine recognized the Michigan dairy industry leader as a 2010 Pioneer Award winner at its annual banquet held during World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., in October. Sowerby, internationally acclaimed for his abilities as a herdsman, classifier and dairy judge, received honors for his lifelong commitment to dairy husbandry and bettering the industry.


Source: Michigan State University, College of Agriculture and Natural Resources

Sowerby Recognized as a ‘Pioneer’ in the Dairy Industry

EAST LANSING, Mich. – Michigan dairy producers and industry colleagues had their chance to personally congratulate Merton Sowerby, Grand Rapids, for being recognized as one of the National Dairy Shrine’s 2010 Pioneer Award winners during the 2011 Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference (GLRDC) annual Michigan Dairy Industry Recognition Night program held Feb. 4 in Frankenmuth. He was presented with a framed historical photograph of Michigan State College (MSC) dairy cows crossing the bridge over Farm Lane.

The National Dairy Shrine recognized the Michigan dairy industry leader as a 2010 Pioneer Award winner at its annual banquet held during World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., in October. Sowerby, internationally acclaimed for his abilities as a herdsman, classifier and dairy judge, received honors for his lifelong commitment to dairy husbandry and bettering the industry.

A charter member of the National Dairy Shrine, Sowerby received the honor based on his experience as a dairy herd manager and classifier, helping to incorporate linear traits into the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association (PDCA) Dairy Unified Scorecard and developing the original evaluation coding for linear scoring of Guernseys.

In 1949, a group of dairy industry leaders interested in preserving the country’s dairy heritage, inspiring future dairy leaders by providing scholarships and promoting the importance of the dairy industry founded the National Dairy Shrine. Each year, the National Dairy Shrine honors living or deceased "pioneers" of the dairy industry. Members of the National Dairy Shrine nominate Pioneer Award winners, and an anonymous committee selects them.

Sowerby’s photograph will be displayed with those of other honorees at the National Dairy Shrine Visitors’ Center and Museum in Fort Atkinson, Wis.

Sowerby was born and raised on a farm in Kent County, Mich. Despite his family owning some dairy cattle, he never predicted that was where his life would take him as dairy was something he mostly dabbled in as a hobby. It was not a primary form of income from the family farm.

An active member of 4-H and FFA, he participated in dairy cattle evaluation contests. He ranked as the high individual in the State FFA Dairy Cattle Judging Contest in 1936 and earned the title of high individual in the Jersey breed at the national FFA contest in Kansas City that same year.

After high school, Sowerby attended MSC (now Michigan State University) where his interest in purebred cattle continued to develop. He was a member of the MSC Dairy Cattle Judging Team that competed at the National Dairy Cattle Show in Waterloo, Iowa, in 1942.

"He was easily one of the best cattle judges to come out of Michigan State College," said Russ Erickson, retired faculty member from the Department of Animal Science at Michigan State University. "Mert was a very meticulous person, who was genuinely interested in what made cows unique. When he first came to college, he looked at our animals in all the major dairy breeds and tried to, in his mind, say ‘What should the perfect cow look like and why should it look this way?’ I think that makes him one of the best officials, even in the country."

As a way to fund his education, Sowerby assisted on the Oaklands – a Jersey farm near Ann Arbor – by traveling for the farm owners to dairy cattle shows around the Midwest. This experience gave him the opportunity to meet several outstanding dairy owners and herdsmen. He left school in 1942 to become herdsman of the Oaklands – a position he would hold for the next 13 years. In his tenure with the farm, Sowerby began judging dairy shows. This role would end up taking him across the state, then across the country, and eventually, around the world.

"Mr. Sowerby was always very respected as a contest official judge. He had no monetary investment in the cattle and was always very impartial, no matter the breed," Erickson said. "I think that made him stand out from the rest."

In 1955, Sowerby accepted the herdsman position at Woodacres, near Princeton, N.J., where he developed an excellent breeding program, selling numerous bulls to A.I. (artificial insemination) studs and breeding many award-winning Guernsey animals. While at the farm, he exhibited the Grand Champion cow at the National Guernsey Show four times, Junior Champion female six times and the National Futurity winner five times. Sowerby also had the distinct honor of exhibiting the only five-time All-American Aged Cow of any breed.

In his years as a herd manager, Sowerby was an early adopter of using artificial insemination to breed cattle. In 1952, he worked with then graduate student Ray Cragle on improving the viability of frozen bull semen. He also was an early believer in treating ketosis with propylene glycol and feeding fish meal to cows as a protein and fat source.

After the dispersion of the Woodacres herd in 1971, Sowerby continued his career in the dairy industry as a judge and classifier for the Guernsey, Jersey, Ayrshire, Milking Shorthorn and Brown Swiss breeds as well as an unofficial classifier for Holsteins internationally. He classified more than 200,000 cows in his 12-year career and judged shows in 28 states and three foreign countries.

"Mert is a very soft-spoken, humble man, but he has made a large impact on not just the dairy industry in Michigan, but also across the country," Erickson said. "He made a large contribution by encouraging people to breed quality animals that had long, productive lives. However, he also instilled in the industry the idea of ‘Always have your cattle ready.’ No matter who visits your farm – be it your neighbor, a government official, a fellow farmer or a stranger – your cattle and farm should always be looking their best. I think that’s something that is more important today than ever before."

In 1953, the National Dairy Shrine recognized Sowerby with the Klussendorf Award, a highly coveted recognition based on ability, endeavor and sportsmanship as selected by other dairymen throughout the United States and Canada. He also received the American Guernsey Cattle Club Distinguished Award.

Sowerby and his wife, Frances, reside in Grand Rapids.

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