Fifty years ago this year, on a warm, hazy June day in Maryland, nine dairy farmers pooled their limited resources and made international livestock history. 

Under the leadership of veteran Maryland dairyman, W.I. “Billy” King, a loose “syndicate” of producers agreed to attempt to purchase a homely Holstein bull calf, whose official registered name was Paclamar Astronaut, after the awakening space age.

The knowledgeable dairy producers were well aware of the gangling calf’s mother, Harborcrest Rose Milly, a widely noted All-American cow with a sensational dairy record. Her maternal brother had recently sold for $10,000, and she had just been written up in the industry’s Holstein World magazine as one of the breed’s most outstanding cows. She was housed at prestigious 1,200-acre Paclamar Farms in Colorado, owner of one of the nation’s finest dairy herds. The magazine article included a note that she had recently given birth to a son.

It just so happened that the national Holstein association convention was meeting that June, 1964 in Washington, D.C. Noted Maryland dairyman, auctioneer, and pedigree expert, Doty Remsburg, was tasked with arranging and managing a national cow sale to coincide with the convention. He chose the fairgrounds at nearby Gaithersburg, MD, home to the Montgomery County Fair, and well situated with excellent sale facilities.

Billy King was charged with making selections for the sale. Conferring with fellow dairymen, including Marlin Hoff and Jack King, who had earlier helped judge Milly, he encouraged Paclamar Farms to send her five-month old bull calf to the national sale. He then had an idea – invite dairy colleagues to form a cooperative “syndicate” to purchase the bull calf for future stud service. It was thought that such an animal from a proven mother could bring up to $30,000. He suggested that potential syndicate members each contribute $3,000 toward such a purchase.

That was a significant sum for dairy farmers in 1964. “That was about one month’s milk check for us, so we declined,” one dairy producer said. “I was just out of college, and couldn’t come up with that much money,” another one added. But Billy King persisted, and finally signed up nine dairy producers, all but one from Maryland, plus the Herman Gabbert family of White Plains Farm in South Carolina. Each finally agreed to provide up to $1,500.

Hundreds of persons jammed the gaily decorated fairgrounds pavilion that June day. In came Astronaut. Dairy experts in attendance were appalled. The bull calf was frail, almost sickly. One veteran dairyman said that the gangly animal was “not exceptionally strong, which kept him from smoothing up.” Most commercial bull studs were present, as were prominent dairy producers and investors. They literally turned their backs, none offered a bid, including Curtiss Breeding Service, one of the nation’s largest bull studs, that had recently leased Astronaut’s sire.

Billy King’s syndicate was in from the beginning, but bidding went slowly. Finally, Washington lawyer A.H. Paul, a fun-loving Holstein breeder, started bidding, walking around the ring to get the crowd’s attention. “Get the bull!” Billy King’s father,

Lawson, finally directed. For some reason, A.H. Paul suddenly stopped bidding, and the auctioneer banged the gavel at $9,000. The Billy King syndicate had its bull calf, and each member was in for $1,000.

Astronaut was taken to the Lawson King family’s 1,000-acre farm near Gaithersburg, to be fed and cared-for until his future could be worked out. The syndicate began negotiating with leading bull studs, including Curtiss, who had turned down the opportunity to bid at the sale. Finally, Curtiss agreed to house Astronaut at their Cary, Illinois headquarters, and would collect and distribute the bull’s semen. A contract was signed, whereas Curtiss would determine the price of each ampule of semen to be sold, as well as the percentage of the profits to be sent to each syndicate member. The year-old Astronaut was sent to Illinois after more than six months in Maryland.

Paclamar Astronaut in his prime: one and a quarter tons of championship Holstein bull. As of January 20, 2014, his daughters are found in 12,009 dairy herds in the U.S., with an average annual per-cow production of 17,648 pounds of milk, 644 pounds of butterfat, and 566 pounds of protein. (Photo courtesy of Holstein World.)

Curtiss began promoting “Milly’s bull,” son of the only 96-point (out of a possible 100 for excellent type classification) dairy cow with 1,000 pounds of butterfat in one year. As Milly went on to earn further All-American and All-Time All-American triumphs, more and more dairymen stepped up to buy her bull calf’s semen. They saw a unique genetic trend that combined the best style of his sire, Thonyma Ormsby Senator with the dairyness of his mother, Harborcrest Rose Milly. It wasn’t long before the “Astronaut pattern” began to fully emerge in international dairy breeding circles.

Word got around that Astronaut’s daughters “made milk like they invented it.” They exhibited a rare blend of strength and style and udder quality that would make Astronaut famous. By 1969, Astronaut became the youngest bull ever (five years old) to earn a Gold Medal through artificial insemination. Despite Curtiss’ reservations, they had leased probably the most outstanding dairy bull of his era. So famous was this once “ugly duckling,” that he made the front page of the Wall Street Journal, as well as both the AP and UPI wire services during the summer of 1976. He is the only Holstein ever to appear three times on the cover of Holstein World magazine.

Back in Maryland and South Carolina, the dairymen members of the Astronaut syndicate regularly stopped by their rural mailboxes to pick up their monthly checks from Curtiss. One member admitted that his wife used a check to install a family swimming pool. Another made a down-payment on a larger farm. Still another put a large framed picture of Astronaut on his farmhouse kitchen wall to pay homage to the bull that became a welcome blessing to a small group of hard-pressed dairy producers.

By the time of Astronaut’s death in December, 1978, the 2,670-pound bull had produced over $12 million worth of semen, produced more than 50,000 registered daughters (Astromates), greatly improved the bloodlines of the world’s Holstein dairy herds, and was reported to return an estimated $1,358,000 for each of his nine original investors from more than 108,000 calves produced through the Curtiss breeding program.

His countless records and memories remain, and his daughters, granddaughters, and succeeding generations continue to make immense contributions to the world’s dairy industry. Holstein breeders gathered in western Maryland in March to recognize the 50 years since this remarkable animal came on the world’s dairy scene. Today, Astronaut’s full-size replica is prominently displayed in the King Barn Dairy MOOseum near Germantown, MD, just down the road from the site of one of his investor’s dairy farms.