A feature article in our 2022 Late Summer issue written by Kathleen O’Keefe.
Naming cows can be a bit of a gamble. Not so much when you’re describing a basic quality – Ebony for a black cow, Bianca for a white one, or even Chocolate Chip for a Jersey. But when you go out on a limb and give one a special name signifying her attractiveness, it can be a roll of the dice. But, sometimes it all works out – the Holstein breed has had a couple of prominent ‘Beautys’, but in the Jersey breed, there’s only one ‘Gorgeous’!
The story of Vandenberg Amedeo Gorgeous begins in the Reaboro, Ontario-based herd of Mitch Vandenberg, in the Kawartha Lakes area of central Ontario. Jeff Stephens, a fellow Ontario Jersey breeder and cattle marketer, remembers his trips to the farm well. “Mitch had a real nice herd of cows. People might have thought of him as more of a commercial producer, but he was always really interested in genetics. He would always ask who the good, new bulls were every time I stopped in there,” Jeff recalls. “He had a lot of good blood from the Springflood and Enniskillen cow families in his pedigrees that really laid a solid foundation for his herd.”
Jeff always found a few in herd to ask a price on and admits that if he asked about ten or twelve, he might drive out of the yard owning only one or two. But he always kept track of the heifer and cows in the herd he liked and followed their development. One of those heifers was a very off-age May 1st heifer born in 2001. “I mainly buy and sell show cattle, so I couldn’t really deal on her because she was so off-age, but she always caught my eye. She had such a pretty cut and beautiful frame,” he recollects. “I had made a note of when she was due to calve and made sure to drop by the farm soon after. Mitch had a greenhouse barn, and boy, there were times it felt like a greenhouse in there! It was the early summer of 2003 and she was recently fresh, standing in this very warm barn still wearing some long, rough winter hair, but boy, I couldn’t buy her fast enough!”
Jeff soon had Michael Heath as a partner on the young cow, and thought with time that she could develop into something special. “She didn’t have the deepest pedigree, but she was by Piedmont Grove Amedeo, one of my favorite bulls to this day. They could be slower maturing, but he always put such balance, dairy strength, rib, and good udders on his daughters. I wasn’t worried if she needed another calving,” notes Jeff. Even needing a bit more time, she was 6th junior 2-year-old at the 2003 Royal Winter Fair to kick off what would be a long and legendary show ring career.
Fresh again in July 2004 with a Deluxe heifer, people really started to take notice of Gorgeous during her junior 3-year-old campaign which included a Grand Champion title at the Ontario Summer Show on her way to capturing the Reserve All-Canadian Junior 3-Year-Old award at the end of the season. She had also made a nice production record over 18,000M with 5.4% fat and 3.9% protein – foreshadowing the high production and great components she would become known for in years to come.
Gorgeous was embarking on her show career during the tumultuous early days of the US / Canada border being closed due to BSE. No live cattle were being allowed from Canada into the US, and as the closure stretched on, Michael Heath thought he’d better divest himself of some of his Canadian inventory. And that’s where Stephen Borland of Rapid Bay Jerseys enters the Gorgeous story.
“In April 2005, I bought four cows from Jeff and Mike that day. I knew two of them were quite special and I was happy with the deal we made. I knew those two were really the right kind, but what I didn’t know is how Gorgeous would develop. Honestly, from the day she arrived and moved into her boxstall, she just got better every day for years,” says Steve. He had also purchased cattle from the Vandenberg herd over the years. “I had bought a ton of cows from that herd – he bred some great cows. It was a commercial, freestall setup, but really good blood,” Steve says, concurring with Jeff’s thoughts.
Gorgeous was now ensconced in her forever home at Rapid Bay in Ornstown, Quebec. She calved again in late October of 2005 with a Jewels Jurisdiction son subsequently named Yellow Briar Heath Guapo, who would sire a number of Excellent multiple ‘E’ cows from limited use. Gorgeous promptly scored EX-93 and went on to claim her first Royal Winter Fair Grand Champion title as well as the All-Canadian 4-Year-Old honor for 2005. Three months later, she was moved up in score to EX-95. She showed at the Royal a year later on that same lactation where she won the 5-Year-Old class and was named Reserve Grand Champion. She was voted the All-Canadian 5-Year-Old for 2006, her second All-Canadian title in the same lactation.
Steve had started to flush her, and her first ET babies hit the ground in December 2006 – three heifers sired by Jade that eventually went on to score VG-87, VG-89 and EX-90 and were the first indicators that not only was Gorgeous a great show cow, she was on her way to becoming a tremendous brood cow as well. Her first ET sons – Rapid Bay Glasgow and Rapid Bay Grand Prix -were born in early 2007 and would enter Steve’s Rapid Bay sire program.
In June of 2007, Gorgeous calved again and six days later would be appraised by the classifier. Remarkably, she would score EX-97 at 6-01 with the incredible breakdown of EX-97 mammary system, EX-96 feet and legs, EX-97 dairy strength, and EX-97 rump. She is still the only 97-point Jersey cow that has resided in Canada – as close to perfection as there has been.
Steve still praises her to this day. “She really was picture perfect. There’s not many cows you wouldn’t change a thing about, but it was true of Gorgeous. She was so easy to get ready for the show – you didn’t have to glue her teats, you didn’t have to bag different quarters with different hours. You just milked her out the night before and let her roll.”
And it’s not like Stephen Borland hadn’t seen a good cow before. In the 1990s, he worked with one of the all-time greats, Duncan Belle EX-93, and had bred Rapid Bay Whistler’s Rumour EX-95-6E, just to point out a couple of cows in the herd that has garnered numerous All-Canadian nominations over the decades. Gorgeous kept doing every single thing right, and Steve realized he had a potential franchise cow in his barn. “She was so easy to work with and one of the smartest cows I ever knew. But I worried about her so much once I realized what I had. I’d get up at 2:30am to go check on her. Eventually, I put cameras in the barn so I could check on her from the house, but then I stayed up half the night watching the video feed!”
She charged on through the 2007 show season like in previous years – winning her Mature Cow class at the Royal, and taking the Grand Champion crown. But then she took it a step further and was named Supreme Champion of the whole event. People loved her amazing udder, her balance, and her stylish frame – and how she looked so fabulous while also bolstering the production side of her pedigree – making almost 27,000M in that lactation with 5.7%F and 4.2%P.
Steve flushed her to a number of different sires – seventeen in total – and she transmitted well every time. “She just bred so well. She never made a dud. Not only with the good type, but also her high components. Her daughters all have that high butterfat test, and many of her sons pass that on as well. Rapid Bay Grandious, for example, her Connection son has just crazy high component percentages,” notes Steve.
In total, Gorgeous had 36 sons and daughters. Of her 20 daughters, 16 were scored in Canada and all 16 are VG or EX. Her Excellent daughters include three at EX-93, three at EX-94, and one at EX-95. Of all those matings, Steve considers the cross with Impressive Indiana to be the most successful. “Because of Rapid Bay Sires, I used some of our own bulls and bulls that would be a little unique. Indiana was quite rare and his mother – C Tops Impressive – was hot at the time, so he was something a little different, which I always tried to breed for. That mating produced Rapid Bay Gentry, as well as Rapid Bay Indiana Grace EX-94-3E, and Rapid Bay Indiana Glory EX-93-2E – both of these cows are breeding on incredibly and have really continued to shape our herd the way Gorgeous started.”
He estimates that 80% of his herd now traces to Gorgeous either through daughters or granddaughters or through her sons, and he thinks his herd is as good now as it’s ever been. Steve has built a number of relationships in South America over the years through partnerships and in exporting cattle. He’s sold a few Gorgeous offspring to that market, but has been fairly cautious selling them in North America. He’s loosened his grip on the granddaughters and great-granddaughters and they are starting to shine in other herds across the continent.
Some of Steve’s final and best memories about his Hall of Fame cow were made in 2009. She calved in late July and by August, she had a calcium problem that just would not get resolved. Steve took her to the university vet hospital and she stayed there for 23 days. Steve stayed there too – he milked her and fed her every day and slept in an armchair by her every night. “She wasn’t getting enough calcium, and she lost so much weight. She got so skinny – she looked like she was only a foot wide. But once she got turned around, she charged ahead. She just would eat and eat and eat. She really came back on milk – it was almost shocking how well she came back after seeing how rough she had been,” remembers Steve.
From a near death experience in August to a stroll around the ring at the Royal in November, Gorgeous made a tremendous recovery. The US-Canadian border was open for cattle again, and with that, a rebound in the number of American visitors to the show in
Toronto – many of whom were seeing Gorgeous in the flesh for the first time. Once more, she won the Mature Cow class and was tapped as Grand Champion Jersey. She then captured one more Supreme Champion crown, beating out the Holstein, Thrulane James Rose EX-97, in a battle of three-time Royal Grand Champions.
“She always had a lot of fans, but after her win in 2009, it seemed like so many more people outside of Jersey breeders came to appreciate her,” comments Steve. “She really was stunning – ahead of her time – and good cow people recognized that.”
Steve continues to do a lot of ET work in his 40-cow herd – making 300-400 embryos each year, with 200 of those destined for export to a number of different markets worldwide. Of that number, a high percentage are Gorgeous descendants, so her genetics are continuing to have a global influence.
Her popular sons like Rapid Bay Getaway (by Reagan), Rapid Bay Gunman (by Response), Rapid Bay Grandious (by Connection), and Rapid Bay Indiana Gentry have sired National Grand Champions, National Junior Champions, and continue to make exciting show winners to this very day. Gentry was the Premier Sire of the heifer show at the 2021 International Jersey Show in Madison, WI. Rapid Bay Sires markets about 20 bulls at a time, and currently Steve estimates that half or more are Gorgeous sons.
Her daughter, Rapid Bay Indiana Glory-ET EX-93-2E already has three EX and three VG daughters. Her full sister, Rapid Bay Indiana Grace-ET EX-94-3E, was the Reserve All-Canadian Junior 3-Year-Old in 2014 and has four VG 2-year-old daughters – one at VG-88 and three at VG-87. She also has a number of younger daughters yet to calve. One of those, Rapid Bay Miss Lady Grace 8396-ET (by Premier) was the winning fall calf and Reserve Junior Champion at the 2022 California Spring Jersey Show for judge Mike Deaver, who incidentally was the judge to tap her as Grand Champion at the Royal in 2009. At the same show, the Intermediate Champion, Pacific Edge Gunman Deviant, was sired by Rapid Bay Gunman, Grace’s maternal brother. Her Joyride son, Rapid Bay Train Station-ET has just entered service at Rapid Bay Sires and he’s a bull that Steve is especially excited about.
Every great cow has an end to her own story, and sadly, for Gorgeous that happened when she was 11 1/2. She developed a microscopic lung issue and never recovered. She was buried on the farm in Ormston where she had thrived and gained a worldwide following. But her influence continues on through her daughters and sons, so her continuing story really has no end. Steve Borland is the official judge for the Jersey Show at the Royal Winter Fair this coming November. It’s a fitting continuation of her legacy that he will undoubtedly place many of her descendants throughout the day on the very grounds where she claimed so much glory.