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Dairy Queen: The Legacy of Ellen, Indiana’s Most Famous Cow

Sue Beecher remembers what she wore when she came home from school for a weekend in the fall of 1975. Visiting from St. Joseph College in Rensselaer, she had only jeans in her closet. But her mother wanted Sue and her three sisters to put on skirts. That nice photographer was coming all the way from New York to their farm outside of Rochester, Indiana (just east of the Mt. Zion bridge, a local would have said), and Norma Jean Beecher was seeing to it that her eight children wore their Sunday best for a portrait in Life magazine.

Sue settled for slacks, but Sherry, Shirley, and Pat had on their finest. Brothers Stan, Steve, Scott, and Paul, too, in polyester suits. And, of course, their parents, Larkin and Norma Jean, out of their workaday usual. All 10 Beechers gathered on the lawn around their prize cow, Ellen, and beamed for the camera. They had done this many times in the past year—for curious Japanese dairy farmers, for Argentinian agriculture officials, for a German TV crew. But this was Life, as much a cultural touchstone as American Bandstand. The photographer captured the busy Beecher men working their 160-acre operation, a place that looked deceptively like an average mom-and-pop farm but was now much more. As the home of Ellen, their now-famous supercow who had produced more milk in one year than any bovine ever, it was a window to the world for the country-dwellers. Even the photographer personified the family’s expanded horizons. “I thought he was so exotic,” Sue says. “I thought, I should go to Chicago and find a man like that.”

The Beechers couldn’t wait to see their photos in the magazine. Though Life had stopped its weekly publishing cycle three years before, it still put out special editions, like this photo recap of 1975. When the issue came out, the cover showed the Cincinnati Reds celebrating their World Series title, the end of the Vietnam War, and a rescued Patty Hearst. The Beechers flipped through, looking for their faces and their farm.

They were missing.

Instead, there was a photo of regal, world-champion Ellen, a white beast with continents of black patches, taller than Norma Jean and the star of the family, standing solo in her favorite orchard. No cow had ever received so much attention.

 

Larkin Beecher—“Larkie” to his closest friends—grew up in tiny Twelve Mile, near Rochester. His family farmed mostly crops, but sometimes his father would remove the back seat of their Packard and load in some hogs for market. One night, at a high-school basketball game, Larkin sat in the opponent’s cheering section and met Norma Jean. The two married, and he worked a good job in a furniture factory before trading it for dairy cattle. He liked the gentle nature of the animals, and the self-sufficiency of farming, a way of life he knew, appealed to him.

The Beechers had three kids—Stan, Steve, and Sue—by the time they bought the old Schneider farm on the south end of Lake Manitou, and together the couple settled into a relatively hardscrabble life. He was a ruddy, raw-boned man with a broad smile, and Norma Jean was a tiny, energetic sprite. Their brood grew to eight (four boys, four girls), and there were plenty of chores to keep everyone busy.

The farm came with a herd of “grade,” or non-registered, dairy cows, and the Beechers saved money by growing their own feed. Most days began with a 5:30 a.m. milking, the first of two daily. The milking machine’s dial ticked off every quarter-pound of liquid. Click … click … click

Meanwhile, there were stalls to clean, cows to feed, calves to wean, sick animals to treat, hayfields to tend, house- and homework to be done—and unlike crops, the animals required constant watch. If a cow didn’t come back at night, one of the older boys trekked across the pastures to find her. Two mischievous sister cows, Tracey and Dana, knew how to unlock a gate, and sometimes the Beechers awoke to someone yelling, “The cows are out,” and everyone threw on clothes and rounded up the herd before it reached the road. When bedroom windows were open on a summer evening, Steve, a light sleeper, occasionally heard an animal calving and went out to help. It added up not to a job, but a lifestyle. “My parents couldn’t get away,” Sue says. “This is how we went on vacation: Dad would get up at 3 or 4 to milk the cows. They would load us into the station wagon, drive as fast as they could to Lake Michigan, let us play and swim, load back up, and be home milking by 7 or 8 at night.” The Beechers worked hard to make an honest living, didn’t mind that life was ordinary, and couldn’t imagine fame of any sort finding its way over the Mt. Zion bridge.

Larkin set the family on the road to the Ellen Era when he acquired his first registered Holstein in 1962. Registered cows—those with recorded ancestry, including performance—are more expensive, but their superior genetics can pay off with higher milk production and valuable offspring. Boosting the farm’s value was critical—Larkin and Norma Jean wanted to send all of their children to college. So Larkin went to Royal Center, Indiana, to the Bridge family, who worked for a big outfit called Curtis Breeding Services, and bought a registered Holstein named Bridgecrest Skylighter Elsie. (The family’s cow-naming convention went: farm name, sire’s surname, and a given name beginning with the same letter as the mother’s. For instance, Tracey and Dana had Trixie and Dixie, who begat Trina and Dina.)

Elsie was a respectable milker, and she had produced male calves by artificial insemination through the Bridges. For her next calf, Bob Bridge suggested breeding Elsie with a new bull he was working with, a highly rated animal named Pawnee Farms Arlinda Chief. Pawnee Farms in California was a prestigious breeder; Chief would go on to sire a famous bull named Valiant.

The catch? Chief was expensive: $32 per artificial-insemination session instead of the typical $10. The difference sounds tiny, but for farmers breeding herds of cows, those small costs multiply quickly. The investment was even shakier because looser recordkeeping meant that “genetics were pretty much haphazard” back then, Bridge says. (“You’d ask someone, ‘Who’s that cow’s sire?’ He’d say, ‘I don’t know. Whoever got there first.’”) But Larkin was serious about breeding good stock, so he agreed. After two unsuccessful sessions, Bridge says, his client was getting worried about the cost. One last try later, the Beechers finally had their first registered calf on the way—and she would soon prove worth every penny of that pricey session.

 

Beecher Arlinda Ellen was born on February 26, 1969, in the Beechers’ cold barn. She became a 4-H project for Stan, the oldest at 18, and Scott, 11. Like all calves, she was taken away from her mother within 24 hours to protect Elsie’s milk production.0815_ELLEN_1

Ellen didn’t stand out immediately. She had better-than-average “conformation” (the physical characteristics judges use to assess a cow’s long-term milking potential), but while she possessed the appropriate size, legs just straight enough, heels sufficiently spongy and deep to withstand wear and tear, and a long neck for feeding, her udder hung a little too deep to take home purple ribbons at the fair. “Show cows are the fancy dates, but the milking counts in the long run,” says John Cleland, who grew up with the older Beecher boys and studied animal sciences at Purdue. “She was a Mack truck of a cow. I thought she was pretty.”

Then, as Ellen grew, her potential emerged. Her first lactation, as a 2-year-old, beat the herd’s average by 50 percent. The next year, she was the farm’s top milker of any age and didn’t taper off toward the end of her 12-month lactation cycle like most cows did. At the same time, her sire, Arlinda Chief, was becoming well-known around the dairy world, and the interest extended to his offspring. That’s when the Beechers began to think Ellen could be valuable—a pleasant surprise for their first generation of register-bred cows.

A bovine’s biggest earning potential lies with its calves. Ellen’s daughters would be sought for their milk production, and both her heifers and bulls would be in high demand for breeding. By the time Ellen turned 4, in 1974, she had birthed three bulls and was pregnant again—with twins.

Ellen’s daily milking average was still rising, too, to an impressive 104 pounds, or 12 gallons; most farmers would have been happy with five gallons. She was efficient, taking only 10 minutes in the parlor to “milk out” a volume that would have taken an average cow twice as long to expel. By now, Arlinda Chief’s other daughters across the country were also posting big numbers, and his breeders were using Ellen in ads. Dairy-industry publications picked up on her production. Japanese farmers were among the first to call on her, for a chance to see one of Chief’s oldest progeny and skim some knowledge about raising a prodigious milker.

Larkin decided to separate Ellen from the herd for her protection—and theirs. She had a huge appetite and the will to feed it; some cows have one or the other, but those with both become the highest producers. She would even push other cows out of the way to get to the trough—because the diva “walked first,” as Bob Bridge puts it, and because she was always hungry. The Beechers let her graze in a small orchard alone; she ate as many green apples as she wanted. When it was time to milk—at 6:30 a.m. and p.m., on the nose—she was escorted by halter into the parlor and cut to the front of the line.

Some of the treatment amounted to pure pampering; dairy farmers have long believed some indulgence enhances milk production. Another popular theory held that cows would perform better if they transferred the natural affection they couldn’t give to their calves to their owners—but the owners had to earn the love.

The occasional Japanese farmer at the Beecher house gave way to a steady wave of visitors, all eager to see the “supercow” on pace to break the world record.

The Beechers did. Purdue researchers studying Ellen figured out she liked her hay on the ground, not in an elevated trough, so that’s how she ate. She preferred warm water. Though Larkin had a reputation for taking good care of all of his animals, Ellen’s comfort was a priority. “No rain ever fell on her back,” he once told a writer.

The family was rewarded with a national record for a 4-year-old in the fall of 1974, at the end of her 365-day lactation cycle. Ellen had produced 38,010 pounds of milk, the most ever in the country for a senior 4-year-old. The Beechers realized she was more than a reliably high-yielding cow—she had champion potential, as would her calves, which would increase their price. (Her first bull sold for less than $1,000.) Larkin turned down an offer to sell Ellen for mid–five figures, when an average cow went for a couple grand. “Lightning had struck,” Steve says.

0815_ELLEN_2When Ellen gave birth to twins in the fall of 1974, they were, unfortunately, one of each gender. A heifer born as a twin to a bull is called a “free martin” and is usually sterile. On top of that, a cow usually doesn’t milk heavily the year after birthing twins.

But in January 1975, a couple of months into Ellen’s new lactation cycle, the meter in the parlor went clickclickclickclickclickclickclick for 10 minutes as she was milked. Ellen hit 195 pounds (23 gallons), her highest daily total ever and an unofficial one-day world record. Now the dairy community was rapt. Could she keep this up? And what did Larkin Beecher know that they didn’t?

 

“Ellen.” Sometimes that’s all the person with the Japanese accent would say when they called the Beecher house. The family knew this meant Ellen fans were waiting at the bus station in town. Someone would drive in, pick up the admirers, and bring them back to the farm.

Dairy farming is a livelihood the world over, and the United States is the second-highest milk producer, following India. The trade took off in Japan after World War II as part of the country’s American-supported recovery efforts. Holsteins were favored because they produce far more milk than other breeds. By the mid-1970s, an economic boom in Japan allowed farmers to invest in better breeding, so they turned to the United States for the best genetics. Ellen was on their radar, and the occasional Japanese farmer at the Beecher house gave way to a steady wave of visitors, all eager to see the “supercow” on pace to break the world record. In addition to dairy tourists, Purdue professors were in and out of the barn, where some students stayed in the loft to study Ellen’s every twitch. Testers from the national Dairy Herd Improvement Association and the Vermont-based National Holstein Association also crisscrossed each other as they ensured Ellen’s milkings were not anomalies, measured fat and protein content, and certified Larkin’s reported totals. The representatives made nine surprise visits in addition to 13 scheduled ones, and the Beechers’ transparency went a long way toward curbing any skepticism about the validity of Ellen’s production. (Some unscrupulous farmers would alter results to inflate revenue.)

The Beechers probably could have charged admission, but the thought never crossed their minds. Besides, the publicity could only help the chances of Ellen’s offspring going for a pretty penny. In another stroke of luck, a lab had determined that the new heifer twin born the year before wasn’t sterile after all, greatly beating the odds. The Beechers could put her up for sale that year and start to see how much Ellen’s newly exalted bloodline would fetch. The sales manager for the consigner estimated she would bring in $100,000.

Larkin and Norma Jean’s life, already hectic with a flock of kids and 70 other cows to tend, was suddenly busier than ever. Yet the couple never turned anyone away. Norma Jean kept cookie dough in the freezer so she always had something to serve, even when one group of Japanese farmers knocked after midnight.

Some guests just wanted to get a gander at the massive cow. Others had traveled a great distance for tips on feeding times and stall conditions. “People were asking about her who didn’t know what end of the cow to milk,” says Bob Bridge, who frequently had business at the farm. For her part, the traffic never bothered Ellen. She remained nonchalant as strangers clamored around her box stall and approached for pictures, simply chewing on alfalfa hay and gulping water. Being raised by eight Beecher kids might have acclimated her to a crowd, but mostly it was her nature—another champion characteristic. “Calm cows have a better oxytocin response, so they release their milk better,” says Dr. Mike Schutz, a Purdue Extension dairy specialist. “That, in turn, may keep their udders healthier and allow more milk production.”

Luckily, some visiting experts had advice for the Beechers, who were still figuring out how to nurture Ellen best. One suggested a bovine bra for her expanding udder. A California farmer asked why in the world they were feeding Ellen hay that he wouldn’t even give to his goats. Well, we had a wet year, and this is all we have, the Beechers explained. But they ordered a load of quality hay immediately.

Sometimes Larkin and his sons learned the hard way, though. Ellen began bloating—probably, Steve says, because they fed her whatever she wanted. Eventually they backed off corn and gave her hay, but when the bloating continued, they had to insert a fistula—a metal circle the size of a 50-cent coin that allowed the steady release of built-up methane—in front of her left hip. There was nothing commercially available, so Ellen’s vet commissioned a custom device from Warsaw’s Zimmer biometrics, which made artificial joints.

Of all their guests, Dr. Jack Albright, a Purdue animal-behavior specialist, took the most interest in Ellen. Sue remembers him practically living at the farm; some of his students did, sleeping in the barn to record meticulous data on Ellen’s “time budget.” They learned that she closed her eyes 30 minutes a day and chewed 60 times per minute. They recorded every time she stood up, defecated, urinated, licked her hair, stooped, stretched, ate grain versus hay versus marginalized salt. They noticed that she would tip a water bucket to drink every last drop before moving on to the full bucket next to it. She rested almost 14 hours a day, six on her left side and eight on her right. She chewed her cud for seven-and-a-half hours a day. Above all, she was never flustered. They noted everything, in the hope of unlocking the secrets of Ellen’s prolific nature.

Some believe Ellen elevated the profile of Holsteins worldwide.

As the end of Ellen’s 365-day lactation approached in October 1975, and the record seemed like a foregone conclusion, a German TV crew spent days at the farm recording “everything but when you were behind the bathroom door,” Steve says of the documentary.

Ellen’s last milking on November 21, 1975, made it official: The annual record was hers, at 55,661 pounds—nearly 6,500 gallons, enough to fill 115 bathtubs. The Beechers celebrated a few weeks later, on December 13, when Rochester’s Chamber of Commerce and a few sponsors held Ellen Day USA. The crowd of 600, including two from Tanzania, parked their vehicles on the Beechers’ harvested cornfields. Colleagues presented the family with gifts, including a globe and a wall clock. One speaker noted that The Indianapolis Star had been wrong to compare Ellen to the 1974–’75 IU men’s basketball team, which was only No. 1 in the country, not the world. Someone placed a wreath of roses around Ellen’s neck, and she took a big bite out of it like the sassy queen she was. Then most guests hurried off for the evening milking, surely not at all suspecting that Ellen’s balloon was about to burst.

 

Before the bunting went up for Ellen Day USA, a National Holstein Association official noticed Ellen’s twin daughter, Beecher Starlight Elsie–Twin, for sale and decided to double-check the test result proving she could produce milk. He found that the lab had made a mistake—the heifer, suffering from a partially developed uterus, was sterile. Her value plummeted, and the Beechers withdrew her from the auction. They sent her to an embryo-transfer facility that would try to fertilize her eggs for surrogate births but had no luck. Elsie–Twin never returned to the farm.

The male twin had sold, so Larkin still had hopes for Ellen’s future calves. Partially based on Ellen’s earning projections, as well as the success of his other cows, he invested in an updated tie-barn stall (where cows are milked in their own berths) and expanded the herd by about 40 percent. Meanwhile, Ellen debuted in the Guinness Book of World Records the next year and kept milking heavily enough to set another mark: the first cow to produce 100,000 pounds in two consecutive lactations. The fan mail and tour buses continued coming: delegations from Poland and Russia, a motorcoach with agriculture officials from 23 African countries, more Japanese. Everyone wanted to know how to raise a cow like Ellen.

Some believe Ellen elevated the profile of Holsteins worldwide. Years later, Rochester historian Shirley Willard wrote that the wide publicity contributed to global demand for the breed—and a black-and-white Indiana cow in particular. “We became a state with a very strong registered-Holstein population and a reputation for having many elite breeders,” Purdue’s Schutz says. Ellen’s record also coincided with changing attitudes toward heart health, as consumers began to drink more lowfat milk from Holsteins. (Today, 90 percent of the United States’ dairy cows are Holsteins, which outnumber all other cow breeds combined.) Albright’s Purdue observations of Ellen were highly circulated, enriching the quality of Holstein education available to farmers.

On the flipside, writer Mark Kramer invoked Ellen in his 1980 book, Three Farms: Making Milk, Meat and Money from the American Soil, an examination of disappearing small farms. Breaking the 50,000-pound mark set a new standard for dairy cows, Kramer said of Ellen, whom he called the “Cleopatra of all dairy cows.” Consequently, dairy farming became a big business fueled by genetics, which put small practitioners out of the game. He wondered how far the trend could go. “What will happen to farmers,” he wrote, “when Beecher Arlinda Ellen can be cloned?”

While Ellen’s effect on agriculture may be difficult to isolate, her influence on the Beecher family resounded. Larkin’s stock rose in the dairy-farming community; he and Norma Jean even chaired the National Holstein Association’s annual conference when it came to Indianapolis. Above all, the fame and the farm meant they had the means to help their children through college. The two oldest, Stan and Steve, attended Notre Dame. Two girls went to St. Joseph, also private; two others attended Purdue, one for agriculture; and a pair went to trade school. All received at least a partial scholarship.

Ellen’s first bull sired 100 daughters through artificial insemination, and while some milked high, on average they did not produce as much as their herdmates.

With the farm poised to grow, Stan and Steve returned after graduation, despite earning degrees in American studies and finance, respectively. But the bulls Ellen had birthed before she set records were disappointing breeders, failing to produce heifers of Ellen’s caliber. Her first bull sired 100 daughters through artificial insemination, and while some milked high, on average they did not produce as much as their herdmates. Their performance devalued Ellen’s future bulls—one of which got caught in a fence and died. A heifer might have fetched top dollar, but Ellen never birthed another female.

Still, Larkin turned down offers to buy Ellen; he and Norma Jean couldn’t bear to part with her. In 1977, she again produced a record amount of milk for her age category, but her cervix ripped that year while delivering a calf, making it her last offspring. In 1979, the family sent her to American Embryos in Michigan to harvest her eggs to be fertilized and implanted in surrogates; any progeny would be potentially valuable. But after a couple of years, they ended up with just one viable specimen. The bull born from the resulting transplant brought a six-figure offer from a Japanese artificial-insemination company, but in a final stroke of hard luck, the calf suffered an umbilical hernia, and Japanese law prohibited the import of a cow after a surgical repair. Though the Beechers did sell the bull’s semen for a while, that was the end of the potential for a big payday. But for the family, Ellen’s true value couldn’t be measured with dollar signs.

 

The Rochester Sentinel ran Ellen’s obituary in June 1984, though she had died three months earlier, in March, at age 15. “None of us wanted to talk about it for a while,” Norma Jean told the paper. The Beechers buried her in front of the barn.

Larkin’s farm sustained his family, yet it didn’t thrive as he had once hoped. The meter on the milking machine went back to click … click … click…. But he would always have the glory of Ellen. Even while she was away in Michigan, her portrait hung over his and Norma Jean’s bed. She returned to the farm from American Embryos in 1981, and though her elite days may have waned, her star still shined—international visitors continued to drop by, perhaps because her Guinness record stood until 1992, an incredible run. But carrying around all that weight took its toll, and she became arthritic. When she got gray and started gritting her teeth, Larkin knew the end was near.

In the mid-1990s, the Beechers sold the farm. “We’d made a decision to go in a direction that probably wasn’t right,” Steve says. “We put the cows in a fancy facility and had a dream of selling breeding stock. The industry was going the other way—larger herds, less labor-intensive, economies of scale. It didn’t make sense for us to continue.” Around the same time, Ellen’s world record fell by 3,000 pounds to a cow in New Hampshire who was milked three times a day to Ellen’s two, which contributed to the higher totals. Considering how much genetics had improved the process by then, it is remarkable Ellen’s record lasted 17 years. No cow since has held the title for longer than six.

Larkin and Norma Jean lived out their days in Twelve Mile, but Ellen’s legacy survived them. Albright, of Purdue, became a distinguished leader in the field of animal behavior and a National Dairy Shrine Pioneer. The researcher continued to mention Ellen in lectures around the world until he died last year in Carmel. But Albright never could answer the question all those busloads of guests wanted to know: Why did Ellen produce so much milk?

Mostly, Ellen got lucky—breeding creates more than a billion potential genetic combinations. “Without the genetics, she would have been an average cow; without my father as herdsman, she would have been an average cow,” Sue says. Yet for all of Albright’s insights, Ellen ultimately underscored the theory, Schutz says, that the better you treat animals, the more productive they will become. “A content cow gives more milk,” read a Maryland newspaper in 2011, recapping a bovine-study meeting. “[Ellen] is still mentioned with awe at small-town veterinary conferences.”

In the end, it didn’t take cloning to diminish the number of small dairy farmers like Larkin. Indiana’s stature in the dairy world hasn’t budged much since Ellen’s time, either. (As far as milk production goes, says Doug Leman, executive director of Indiana Dairy Producers, “we’ve been stuck at 14th in the country for a while.”) Yet beyond the busloads of tourists and bags of fan mail, the Beechers achieved what mattered most: a place to raise a family, enough bounty to send their kids to college, and a good example set. “If there was one thing about the whole ordeal to be proud of,” Steve says, “it was that we treated everyone who came to see Ellen with respect.” Hoosier hospitality—and a side of milk.

Fernandez began writing for Indianapolis Monthly in 1995 while studying journalism at Indiana University. One of her freelance assignments required her to join a women's full-tackle football team for a season. She joined the staff in 2005 to edit IM's ancillary publications, including Indianapolis Monthly Home. In 2011, she became a senior editor responsible for the Circle City section as well as coverage of shopping, homes, and design-related topics. Now the director of editorial operations, she lives in Garfield Park.
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