A feature in our Late Winter 2022 issue written by Julie Ashton.
Between All-American announcements and Holstein Association USA releasing the top BAA herds for 2021, Retso Holsteins had a lot to celebrate ringing in the new year – nine cows nominated representing four breeds and a national ranking for BAA. And while these stats are impressive, they certainly aren’t the first and won’t be the last that Brian Oster and Cassie Chittenden have worked day in and day out for.
Retso Holsteins, located in Schodack Landing, NY, is owned by Brian Oster and Cassie Chittenden. Brian’s family operated a 120-cow Holstein farm in central NY until 2014. Cassie’s family operates Dutch Hollow Farm two miles from Retso with 800 Registered Jerseys with a steeped history in breeding and genetics. Brian and Cassie met at the NY State Fair when Cassie was serving as the NY State Jersey Queen and Brian was working for Kevin Ziemba. It wasn’t love at first sight then; however, Brian’s airport boredom led him to text the wrong ‘Cassie’ on Cassie’s birthday and a well struck conversation led to their belief that it must’ve been fate! They were married on the farm in June 2018.
Brian and Cassie started milking in February 2016 with 6 cows, a portable milk pump, and bucket milkers. Each year, they have grown their operation by filling another section in the barn. Brian’s main role is overall cow and herd management along with client management including cow movement (incoming/outgoing), IVF/embryo work coordination, and overall day-to-day operations. Cassie oversees the calf and heifer program and manages all aspects associated with financial management. Retso also employs Bob and Serafina who assist with the day to day operations on the dairy; Bob with the cows and Serafina with the calves.
Currently, they milk 90 cows spanning numerous breeds, with an RHA of 23,312M 3.9%F 3.3%P. The herd consists of 35 Excellent and 40 Very Good cows, and since they began in 2016, they have had 18 94-point, 17 93-point, and 10 89-point first lactation cows call Retso home, many of whom received those scores in their care. Over the last 5 years, 105 EX cows have made their home at Retso. These outstanding scores have also earned them a 113.5 BAA on 48 cows, which ranks them 19th nationally for herd size and 5th regionally. They have been in the top 20 nationally since they began milking. “For us, a 113.5 BAA is impressive when 40% of our herd is 2-year-olds,” commented Brian.
Along with a barn of high-scored animals, All-American nominations are also warranted. Since its inception, Retso has accumulated 33 All-American or Junior All-American nominations. In 2021, they added 9 nominations in four breeds. And for Brian and Cassie, these results are icing on top of a cake of hard work and determination.
Retso was created with the intention of boarding cattle for others. “Our original goal was that we would be pleased to have 50% our animals and 50% board cows and to fill the barn half way in total. We started boarding cattle for close friends, including our mentor Kevin Ziemba. Along with him, he brought his contacts that he had previously boarded cattle with as well as his network. Over the years, our growth was simply due to word of mouth and producing results seeing that we didn’t start Retso’s active Facebook page until 2018. For the last year we have remained at having roughly 50 clients and 70 board animals in total. Our mentality has always been the same since day one, to treat each cow as if they were our own, and manage our client relations with transparency. Cows have always been our bread and butter; however, we have started to board more calves on milk and donor heifers over the last couple of years,” according to Cassie.
Brian and Cassie expanded on how they work with the clients on cow management and breeding decisions: “Every client is different and takes different roles in the breeding and development of their cattle. We have some who are very hands-on, and others that are completely hands-off and have the viewpoint of ‘I pay you to handle all of it’ with the overarching common goal for the cow to excel. We try to manage expectations honestly, but first and foremost ask the client what are their expectations for the cow and her offspring, and then try to reach for those goals. The most important part is trying to reach a commonality that our goals for the individuals are those of our clients.”
“Above all else, our goal and philosophy is to create an environment where each cow has the ability to excel and reach her full potential.”
Brian and Cassie are very clear with the goals for Retso: “Above all else, our goal and philosophy is to create an environment where each cow has the ability to excel and reach her full potential. This comes through several different facets including cow comfort, animal wellness, and employee management. In some ways, it combines the willingness to think outside the box to achieve the desired results and the tenacity to never be satisfied with good, but always aspire to be better. It is routine for us to have impromptu brainstorming sessions no matter how big or small the change with each other, mentors, and our employees; forever changing and adjusting but also willing to try something even if it may not work in the end.
Within the business, the goal for us personally is to create a nucleus herd that will not only provide successful show results, but also make well-rounded cows with deep pedigrees from which we can market. For us, we are looking for a truly modern cow; extreme udder traits, moderate stature with style, positive DPR, and, at the end of the day, will make milk. It is also our goal that the animals we market have the thriftiness to excel in their new environment and have been handled enough to make them easy animals to work around.
Between providing an environment where all animals can succeed and raising our own style of cows, we also provide the opportunity for others to continue as breeders even if they don’t milk cows themselves. Regularly, we consult with our clients on breeding decisions to meet their own goals; which include breeding for show heifers, show cows, or a similar style to our own modern cow. The diversity of breeding philosophies that we are able to see play out is exciting and tremendously rewarding. We find fulfillment in our clients’ successes with animals that we are privileged to care for on a daily basis. The most satisfying end result has been the ability to create a community of people who have a shared passion of breeding and owning great cows.”
While showing is certainly a thrilling part of Retso’s portfolio, most of their clientele have broader intentions. “For many of our clients, their goal is to ensure they continue to develop pedigrees with integrity by being on test, classifying often, and the ability to create the next generation. During 2021, we worked with about 50 different donor dams and are on pace to surpass that in the first 6 months of 2022. Being client oriented, we utilize three different IVF companies, Boviteq, Trans Ova, and Vytelle, based on which option fits the donor and owner preference.”
While the boarding business is certainly a large facet, the Retso breeding program is nothing to scoff at. The cornerstone Holstein family stemmed from Butlerview Doorman Camo (EX-92 3Y), a daughter of Silvermaple Damion Camomile (EX-95). She was a cow that flushed well at Retso and transmitted her style to offspring incredible well. To date, she has two Excellent and three Very Good daughters. Brian and Cassie marketed the majority of her offspring privately but are now working with the next generation, including a King Doc granddaughter that is +2482G +1179M +86CFP +3.49T. “Directionally, she fits our combination of the modern cow and will be worked as a donor dam once she comes of age,” commented Cassie.
Ronbeth Alexander Pearl (EX-94 3E) was another of Retso’s original brood cows that has numerous daughters and granddaughters in the herd today.
In 2019, Brian and Cassie partnered with long-time client and mentor, Kevin Ziemba, on ZBW M KD Lori. When Lori was born, Kevin knew she was special. When her preliminary genomic results came in, she was only 1 of 10 heifers in the breed that was over +4.0T and +2400 GTPI.
Lori earned a Junior All-American nomination in 2018 and was purchased by Peter Vail in the Best of Triple-T & Heath Sale the following spring. Peter approached Kevin, Brian and Cassie about partnering on Lori to create the next generation. Lori had the unique combination of high type and show-ring style, from an untouched maternal line. She was a King Doc backed by three Excellent dams then Stone-Rise Durham Lizzie (EX-95 3E GMD DOM), HHM All-American Production Cow in 2007.
The new partnership exhibited Lori as a spring yearling that year, where she earned several blue ribbons and junior champion rosettes on a local and state level. There was also a strong embryo interest from Lori, with embryos exported and sold stateside. But, she really shined when she calved in, scoring VG-88 with an EX mammary at 2-05. Lori placed third at the North American Open Holstein Show, ultimately earning her HM All-American status.
Currently, she has three daughters over +4.0T with ZBW-Retso-PV Ad Lib the highest at +4.27T and ranked #16 heifer in the breed. Moovin sons Styleleader *RC is +4.0T and Landshark is +3.77T; both are at STGenetics. Lori was sold after the 2020 show season to Arizona Dairy and Siemers Holsteins, who sold her Madison week to Elmvue Holsteins. She was 10th at this year’s WDE.
Brian and Cassie’s latest purchase was Gillette Lauthority 2nd Run (EX-94 3E), a sister to Windbrook and Windhammer and the highest scored daughter of Gillette Blitz 2nd Wind (VG-88 74*). 2nd Run is also owned with Peter Vail. They have offspring coming this year by King Doc, Hanans and Delta-Lambda.
Brian and Cassie jokingly promote themselves as an “equal opportunity boarder,” and with that, have invested in owning animals themselves in most breeds. Owned with Brian’s mom, Becky Oster, the Guernseys have been a small project that has produced great results, with two All-American nominations in milking form – Retso AP Kiya and Retso AP Kitkat – American Pie full sisters from a successful flush of a VG-88 Grumpy daughter of Luckyvale Yogi Kiara (VG-88), Reserve Junior Champion at WDE in 2011 and 5X All-American or Junior All-American nominee. Brian and Cassie plan to create the next generation at Retso with Kitkat. “It has also been rewarding to still have a hand in Kiya’s continued development at Retso even after we sold her as a calf to Sylvia Johnson,” commented Cassie.
They also recently entered the Ayrshire world, owning a few that are carrying ET pregnancy daughters of Blind-Buck-Valley Sol Red Pepper (EX-94), Grand Champion at the 2009 World Dairy Expo.
The passion that Brian and Cassie share for their business and their cows is palpable. When looking to the future, their immediate goals include a heifer facility that will inevitably grow their heifer boarding options. But ultimately, their goals are simple: establish themselves as dedicated caretakers while building a reputation for breeding the style of cattle they love.