This article was a feature in our 2020 Fall issue and was written by Kathleen O’Keefe.
It’s hard to pin Rick ‘RT’ Thompson down on a lot of stats concerning his herd. He says he’d have to look up exactly how many Excellent cows or check the test sheet for the rolling herd average of his Brown Swiss, Jersey, and Holstein herd. But the one number he can fire right off is how many Premier Breeder banners the Random Luck show string has captured at various shows over the years – a number that currently stands at 47!
That count is a pretty good indicator of RT’s priorities with the herd, and of his goals in the show ring. Good cows that stand near the top of their class earn the most points in the banner race, and that sums up the ideal of the Random Luck breeding program – to make good cows with the longevity and type to turn into high-scoring, profitable older cows that can still take a spin wearing a show halter.
And to emphasize the point, those banners were claimed at some of the best shows in the country – twice Premier Breeder at the International Brown Swiss Show in Madison, twice at the NAILE Brown Swiss Show in Louisville, once at the Southwest Regional Brown Swiss Show in Stillwater, and many, many times at the Wisconsin State Brown Swiss Show and the Wisconsin State Fair. The Jersey herd has claimed a fair number of Premier Breeder banners at Wisconsin Jersey shows as well.
Located in Darlington, WI in the southwestern corner of the Badger State, the Random Luck herd is home to a number of those high-scoring older girls. Three of those cows won the Senior Best Three class at World Dairy Expo in 2019 on their way to being named Unanimous All-American Senior Best Three and thus let RT “accomplish a thing that’s been on my bucket list.”
Heading up that group is Random Luck B Tea Rose ‘2E-95’, a Bonanza daughter that was also the Reserve All-American Aged Cow in 2019, placing 2nd at Madison to the eventual Supreme Champion, Delilah. She was also the Reserve All-American Aged Cow in 2017, and the Reserve All-American 5-Year-Old in 2016, so she’s logged plenty of miles in the ring. Tea Rose has a top record at 6-02 2x 365d 25,662 4.7% 1215 3.4p 863, and has had those high components throughout her lifetime production. She also was named the Wisconsin Brown Swiss Cow of the Year for 2020, and was to receive the award in front of the Expo crowd and Brown Swiss World Conference attendees before COVID-19 put an end to those plans.
Tea Rose is out of an ‘2E-91’ show-winning Premium daughter, Random Luck Twinkle OCS, that was Grand Champion at the WI State Fair and WI State Show in 2010. Her next dam is Sun-Made Jetway Taps ‘2E-92’, the first Brown Swiss that RT ever purchased back in 1998. Behind Taps is Superior brood cow Sun-Made Blend Trisha ‘2E-91’, and then the extraordinary brood cow, Morts Matt Tammy ‘3E-90’. Not surprisingly from this powerful maternal line, Jetway Taps became the foundation of RT’s Brown Swiss herd. Through her 16 Excellent daughters, she accounts for the ‘T’ family at the farm that has produced numerous Excellents and garnered many, many All-American honors.
The second member of that AA Best Three Females is from the same ‘T’ family – Random Luck L Talula ‘3E-94’, who is a Legacy daughter out of a ‘2E-94’ full sister to the dam of Tea Rose, so the two cows are closely related. Talulah made 32,840 4.8% 1584 3.5p 1144 in 365 days as at 4-02, and also has a long list of All-American titles to her credit. She was the Reserve All-American Component Merit Cow in both 2017 & 2019, and has also been nominated All-American four other times as an individual. She claimed some extra hardware at World Dairy Expo in 2019 as she was the Total Performance Winner, the Nasco Type & Production Award winner, and also Reserve Grand Champion of the Junior Show. Her Premium dam was nominated All-American five times, and was the Reserve All-American Component Merit Cow in 2015.
Random Luck V Precious, a ‘3E-94’ Vision daughter, is the final member of that winning group, and hails from the other prominent Brown Swiss family at the farm. Her dam, Random Luck KB Phoebe ‘2E-93’ is, like Taps, sired by Jetway, and was the first animal born on the farm in Darlington. She was the HM All-American Senior 3-Year-Old in 2006, and traces back into a Kies Haven pedigree that had a number of show winners in the 1990s. Precious has been a long-time campaigner for RT and partners Brian Voegeli & Dan Reider, starting out her career as the All-American Summer Yearling in 2009, and followed with a Reserve All-American Junior 3-Year-Old title in 2011. She’s been an anchor to the numerous Best Three Female and Produce of Dam groups that have tallied a pile of All-American nominations in the past decade.
After graduating from UW-Platteville in 1991, RT earned a living by fitting full-time, first at the Great Northern clipping for their many sales, and then spent three years with the powerful Holstein show herd campaigned by Pinehurst Farms. In that time, he gained two lifetime mentors in David Bachmann, Sr. (owner of Pinehurst) and Terry Lee (show herd manager). “I really came to respect David’s philosophy of buying into superior cow families and then continuing to develop the pedigrees from there. He always wanted to come home with the Premier Breeder & Exhibitor banners, and I guess that left a mark on me,” notes RT. “Terry taught me to stay focused on the big picture and not sweat the small stuff – to really pay attention to and take care of the basics first.”
After his time at Pinehurst, RT signed on at Sunshine Genetics as an assistant herdsman. That was his first daily exposure to working with Brown Swiss (he had grown up with Holsteins), and that job sparked his affinity for the big brown cow. “I was working with some really good cows on a day-to-day basis at Sunshine, and then at World Dairy Expo, you’d see that the show winners were also the bull mothers of the breed and it really just seemed to be a type of cow and a philosophy that suited me.”
It would be easy to go on and on about the Brown Swiss, but the 80-cow herd actually is about 40% Swiss, 40% Jerseys, and 20% Holsteins. The Jerseys have some things to brag about too, as out of the first 100 Jerseys bred at Random Luck, over 50 were scored Excellent and 25% were EX-92 or better including three at EX-95%!
RT married Lisa Caya in 1993 and she brought along her love for the little brown cow. She had worked for Barlass Jerseys and the foundation of the Jersey herd at Random Luck comes from that famous fellow Wisconsin herd. (RT and Lisa have since divorced, but Lisa keeps connected with the Jerseys by regularly milking and helping with chores.)
One of the best known Jerseys to carry the prefix was Random Luck Ray Helen EX-94%, a Comerica daughter purchased by Budjon Farms and Peter Vail when she was a 3-year-old. Helen was Reserve Grand Champion at the International Jersey Show in 2012 and Reserve Grand Champion at the Royal Winter Fair in 2014.
Random Luck K Honesty-ET EX-95%, sired by Kenai, is a four-time Grand Champion at the Wisconsin State Fair and is a veteran of 11 lactations. One of five EX sisters, she has several Excellent daughters herself.
Sold privately as as 2nd calf senior 2-year-old to Robbie Watson, Random-Luck T Heather EX-95% has been Grand Champion at the Kentucky State Fair, and Reserve Grand Champion twice at the Southern National Show. Her herdmate at Red Dirt Genetics in Oklahoma, Random Luck Surprise Me EX-91% is also planning a trip to Stillwater for the 2020 Southern National Show.
All in all, Brown Swiss and Jerseys carrying the Random Luck prefix have garnered over 100 All-American nominations over the past twenty years. Contrary to what you might think, RT hasn’t flushed anything for over two years. “We built up the herd and now it seems we want a daughter out of almost everything, not just the old cows”, RT explains.
With that many mature cows in the barn though, it does mean there are surplus cattle to sell. There’s always lots of junior interest in Brown Swiss calves, so he breeds some to have show heifers to sell, while also always trying to breed for cows for himself.
The COVID-19 pandemic dismantled a number of consignment sales this spring, so he had to come up with a way to sell the heifers he had consigned to those sales. He ended up running a sale on Facebook that offered the buyer the option of 10% down and the balance due when the buyer picked up the heifer for a show ($3.00 a day boarding after sale day) or they could pay for and pick up the heifer immediately. The sale successfully sold 15 calves for him, and he plans on doing one again in 2021. The key to a successful online sale, he thinks, is the proper pricing. “Price them accordingly for where people want to show and they will sell. You can’t price them all the same if one wants a county fair heifer and one wants a National show level heifer,” notes RT. “I do think more and more business will be done in these online sales in the future.”
With all the drawbacks of a pandemic year, the Random Luck show string is planning to stay home from the tanbark this fall. RT’s son Matthew, 16, is a sophomore at Darlington High School and was able to get to a few junior shows this summer. Daughter Allison, 18, is a freshman at Carroll College studying applied physics and playing on the women’s basketball team. RT mentions that one silver lining of the COVID-19 upheaval was having Matthew around for some extra help. “He’s really good with the equipment, can feed and run the skid steer. We only own 40 acres to raise corn sileage and have some pasture, so we buy all of our hay. But now that he can run equipment, we could think about buying some more land to do some our own hay,” comments RT. “I always thought the farm was the best place to raise kids, and they both seem to have enjoyed it along with showing cattle.”
Keeping kids involved with show cattle is a key to keeping the purebred business viable and vibrant according to RT. “We both sell and lease calves – I think we leased out eight or nine heifers this year. We need to think about making room for these one-day junior jackpot shows that the other species have. They’re fun, exciting, and they keep the kids coming back every year to buy a new show heifer!”
RT does his share to keep the shows active in Wisconsin. He’s been an enthusiastic exhibitor at the Wisconsin State Fair stretching back to the time when Pinehurst tied their impressive string right inside the main door, and he’s kept going back almost every year since. That dedication was acknowledged in 2019 when he was the Wisconsin State Fair Dairy Barn Hall of Fame Inductee. He also serves as an at-large Brown Swiss breed representative on the World Dairy Expo Dairy Cattle Exhibitor Committee.
He doesn’t take a lot of time away from the farm, but enjoys getting out to do some judging assignments. He was the official judge at the Illinois State Brown Swiss Show in August, and last year placed the cattle at the Western National Show. He really enjoys the interactions with other breeders, and would like to continue judging a couple shows a year.
Random Luck’s absence from the tanbark trail means that RT won’t be adding to his banner total this year, but he’s looking forward to 2021. “Everything is bred for next year, and I think we’ll have a good lineup of cows to get out then,” he says hopefully. It’ll be a good sign that things are back to normal when you once again hear Random Luck announced as the winner of a Premier Breeder banner!