Replicating Zita

Cover Story

November 11, 2001|By Patricia Meisol | Patricia Meisol,STAFF WRITER

This is the story of a man and his cow. A cow so special that people came from all over the world to touch her. A man so smitten with her that he couldn't imagine the farm without her. So he cloned her.

The man is Greg Wiles, a sixth generation Maryland farmer whose passion for farming was bred on his father's 200 rolling acres in Washington County.

The cow is Zita, a Holstein with a white triangle on her forehead who became Wiles' way out of a 30-year depression of milk prices, and whose genetic material was so extraordinary that she would test the bounds of science.

You can find them by driving down a long, dusty lane.

The Wiles farm in Williamsport is marked by a turn-of-the-century wagon with fold-down seats for hayrides, and a large, handpainted sign: "Futuraland 2020 Holsteins. Visitors and friends welcome." A portrait of Zita, Wiles' prized Holstein, is on the left.

A pretty old barn, cedar and hand-beamed, Victorian trim on its cupolas, overshadows the milking parlor where Wiles, 35, spends the biggest chunk of his day. The cows enter through two doors, six at a time, on alternating sides of the bay where Wiles hooks them up to a milker and flips a switch.

Instantly, white liquid zooms through the lines, filling 65-pound glass containers and, eventually, a gleaming, stainless steel tank.

Wiles whistles to move the cows along. "Come on," he urges, patting their rumps to nudge them into the stalls.

A third of this 106-cow herd bears Zita's glossy black body and trademark patch of white hair. Like her, some stand a half-foot taller than ordinary cows. All Wiles' cows are identified by a number, but Zita has always been known by her name.

Twice a day for three hours, Wiles milks his cows. It isn't the most enjoyable part of the job, he says, but whenever he gets bored or sick he imagines the times Cal Ripken must have felt the same and took the field anyway.

Every other day, a tanker arrives to collect 12,000 pounds of fresh milk from the barn and transport it to Giant Food Inc.'s processing plant in Laurel. Sometimes a milk inspector drops by. The more frequent visitor, though, is a buyer of breeding stock; genetic material from cows brings Wiles twice as much revenue as milk.

Until 1991, Futuraland was just another mid-sized commercial dairy farm that took its profit from milk sales. Breeding cows for their genetics was not a business Wiles set out to build, but the seed was there.

At 12, Wiles could be found out in the pasture with a Holstein breeding magazine imagining possible matches. He would study udders, hipbones, and the size of a cow's head. His father paged through pictures of bulls to find one that looked good enough to sire his cows. But the son would focus on pedigree, and when the breeder arrived, the boy made the decisions. "Let's breed her to this one," he'd say.

When the young man returned to the farm from the dairy science program at the University of Maryland College Park in 1986, he took over breeding.

His first big break in the genetics business came unexpectedly.

Wiles was simply after a better milk cow when he bred an ordinary cow on the farm with an untested bull with solid pedigree. The result, Pamula, set a Maryland record, producing 40,700 pounds of milk in one year.

A lot of farmers said a highly ranked cow couldn't be bred -- it had to descend from generations of top cows. Pamula proved them wrong.

She was so coveted that Wiles turned to a new technology to meet the demand for her offspring: embryo transfer. When Pamula came into heat, the veterinarian injected her with fertility drugs and semen. He then would flush out the material with saline solution and examine it under a microscope. Any resulting embryos -- fertilized eggs -- were frozen, sold to farmers who wanted to improve their herds and implanted in surrogate or recipient cows of lesser genetic quality.

Pamula's success led Wiles to set himself a new challenge: to breed a cow that would top the Holstein Association USA's century-old ranking of quality milk producers. And he knew whom he wanted for the sire.

At his first cattle auction in 1990, Wiles missed most of the sales because he kept flipping back in the catalog to the page on a daughter of a famous bull, Blackstar, and Zwarte, a Holstein from a noted New York breeder.

He got the chance to buy into that family six months later, at an auction that offered first choice of three unborn calves sired by Blackstar. The bids were taken by phone for an hour, until a sweating Wiles realized his offer of $9,100 -- four times the usual cost of a milk cow -- had been accepted.

The first of Blackstar's offspring was born in April 1991. Her name was Zita, and Wiles snapped her up without waiting to see the others. All he had to do then was summon the courage to tell his father that he'd bought one cow for the price of four.

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.