Belle Sarcastic, circa 1900. Photo Credit: M.S.U. Archives, which has adopted her as an unofficial mascot.
Belle Sarcastic was a Holstein-Friesian cow owned by the Michigan Agricultural College in the 1890s. For a dairy cow, she garnered quite a bit of fame in her lifetime, and was a source of great pride for the College.
She was bred by H. P. Doane of Duffield in Genesee County, and calved on January 18, 1890. Belle was acquired by the College soon after, but nearly became an early cull. In 1893, Clinton D. Smith arrived at M.A.C. to become Experiment Station Director and Superintendent of the Farm. He described three-year-old Belle Sarcastic as “decidedly beefy and steer-like,” “simply a square brick,” and deemed her unfit as a dairy cow. Smith later wrote, “As I made my first official visit and inspection, I told the herdsman, Richard Harrison, the best cow feeder in America, that there was one heifer that should go to the block. His mind was less clouded by theory than mine, and he plead for her life for another year. I let her live. You know the result.”[Holstein-Friesian Herd-Book vol. 19, p. 76]
The result was that within a year, Belle had given birth to her second calf and, to Smith’s surprise, “from a fine beef animal, she developed into an ideal dairy cow.” Although her milk and butterfat production were prodigious, she “consumed absolutely less than the standard required,” with “dainty” eating habits and, somewhat idiosyncratically, “a very strong liking for roots.” In 1895 she gave milk for 738 pounds of butter, a feat that Professor Beal saw fit to include in his “College as a River” timeline, a foldout addendum to his History of the Michigan Agricultural College. Two years later Belle outdid herself, producing 23,190 pounds of milk and 722 pounds of fat—a world record that stood for eleven years.
Surprisingly, in that record-setting year of 1897 Belle Sarcastic was quarantined from the herd when she was diagnosed with bovine tuberculosis, a frequently occurring ailment in that era. Given that the disease can cause loss of both appetite and weight, this makes her record all the more impressive. Clinton Smith, in his annual report to the Board of Agriculture, blamed the inadequate design and poor condition of the old cattle barn (built in 1862) for the illness—a situation that was soon remedied with the construction of two new dairy barns.[36th AR, p. 31]
Belle Sarcastic’s greatest production, however, was undoubtedly her son: Sarcastic Lad, bred at the the College and calved on October 18, 1897. The bull was sold before birth to noted breeders W. J. Gillett & Son of Rosendale, Wisconsin. In 1904, Sarcastic Lad was exhibited by the “World’s Fair Holstein Association” at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis—better known as the St. Louis World’s Fair—where he won the grand champion title in his class (and a $75 prize). After the fair he was acquired by the University of Illinois at Urbana, where he headed that school’s herd. Sarcastic Lad would go on to become “one of the noted sires of the breed,” renowned for passing along his dam’s “ideal dairy cow” aspects to his scores of children, hundreds of grandchildren, and generations beyond. Today it is estimated that thousands of registered Holsteins worldwide can trace their bloodlines to Sarcastic Lad.
Sarcastic Lad, 1910. Public domain image courtesy of University of Illinois Archives.