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A glimpse into Alta's history:
Alta’s deep-rooted history stems from a love and passion for dairy cattle breeding and genetics. As the industry progresses and Alta continues to grow, it is fascinating to take a look back to where it all started.
The Early Years: U.S.
Alta Genetics originated from the foundation of Carnation Farms, established in 1910 near Seattle, WA. Primarily known for its evaporated milk business, Carnation expanded its household name into the vocabulary of Registered Holstein breeders by developing a prominent, industry-renowned Registered Holstein herd. With the inception and growing popularity of artificial insemination through the 1940’s, Carnation Farms incorporated a breeding division to begin selling semen from popular bulls on a local level.
Following the advent of frozen semen in the 1950’s, the AI industry gained momentum, and the success of Carnation’s breeding division grew in 1965 with the purchase of Eastern Iowa Breeders in Cedar Rapids, IA; Piper Brothers Breeding Service in Watertown, WI; and Associated Breeders in Lena, WI. This group of organizations, now under the shared name of Carnation Breeding Service, sold semen through independent distributors to dairy farmers in Wisconsin, Iowa and Minnesota from its Watertown, WI headquarters.
The success in the upper Midwest prompted Carnation’s expansion through the purchase of Genetics, Inc, an AI stud in California with a marketing network in eleven western US states. Following this purchase, Carnation Breeders moved the main headquarters to the former Genetics, Inc. office in Hughson, CA. Carnation then also expanded to the east with the acquisition of Pro Genetics to market semen in the northeastern US.
Throughout this time, the USDA was modifying and improving sire evaluations to become less biased by including herdmate comparisons and more accurate production records. With the advancement of sire evaluations, Carnation Breeding Service decided to begin an official young sire sampling program in 1975 under the instruction of Pete Blodgett, who advised this was necessary in order to remain competitive and relevant in the AI business.
Growth continued for Carnation Breeders, and in 1985 Nestle purchased the entire Carnation Milk Company. At that point, Clarke Nelson, VP of Carnation’s Genetic Division, decided to retire from Carnation and purchase the breeding division of the company for himself and his family. From this purchase, Landmark Genetics was born in September 1985 with Nelson as the Owner and Pete Blodgett as the General Manager.
The Early Years: Canada
During Carnation Breeding’s growth in the US, Western Breeders was also making a name for itself in western Canada. Founded by Doug Blair and Gordon Delair in the fall of 1968, Western Breeders began business in the beef industry, collecting and marketing the new European beef breeds that had been imported to Canada. These breeds immediately gained immense popularity among Canadian beef breeders. Western Breeders filled the Canadian Prairie Provinces market gap to accommodate the large demand and limited supply of these European beef breeds.
From a newly-built 16-stall barn in Balzac, AB, 15 foundation Charolais and one Angus bull created the cornerstone of the Western Breeders AI business. Beef semen sales flourished as the company sold and marketed semen on its own bulls, as well as those of its clients. Through an agreement with the Ontario Animal Breeders Association, Western Breeders also sold and marketed beef bulls housed in Ontario. The next year, beef sales expanded into the US through a new marketing channel with the founding of New Breeds Industries in Kansas. Through the time of its growth and success, Western Breeders staff taught over 2000 beef farmers to breed their own cattle in western Canada.
Additional company growth drove the decision to add Holstein semen to its sales and marketing portfolio starting in 1974. Shortly after, the European beef breed market in Canada crashed. While five of the eight AI centers in Alberta went out of business, Western Breeders pulled through because of its Holstein semen sales to fall back on. By the end of the 1970’s, Holstein semen had grown to become the main business of Western Breeders.
Also in the 1970’s Wijnand Pon, a self-made Dutch dairy farmer and businessman was fueling his desire to make a mark on the dairy industry. He quickly became a pioneer in introducing North American Genetics to the Netherlands by founding Caneda, a company to sell Canadian Holstein Semen to Dutch dairy farmers through his distributorship with Semex. Throughout this time period, Wijnand also developed a mutual relationship of trust with Doug Blair, owning several bulls in partnership and building a friendship from their shared entrepreneurial ambition and passion for the Holstein cow.
Throughout the late 1970’s, embryo transfer had also taken root, gaining popularity throughout the world. Through the contacts made in the first decade of operation, Western Breeders began shipping embryos globally in 1981, and by 1987, had become Canada’s largest exporter of frozen embryos.
Its success in the embryo business drew the attention of Alta Genetics, a company specializing in cloning high quality dairy and beef cattle, formed through the merge of Alberta Livestock Transplants and venture capital company, Altamira. Starting in January 1988, Alta Genetics and Western Breeders combined forces and began united operations under the Alta Genetics name with Doug Blair as President.
Big Changes for Alta
The mid 1990’s brought about many big changes for Alta Genetics. The company’s young sire proving program gave rise to some of the breed’s most pivotal proven bulls, and as success and profits continued, Alta Genetics became a publicly-traded company on the Toronto Stock Exchange in 1993.
The money generated from this decision allowed Doug Blair and Alta Genetics to purchase Landmark Genetics in 1995, creating a joint business venture with his long-time fishing partner and fellow Holstein enthusiast, Pete Blodgett. Operating as the Western Breeders Division and Landmark Division of Alta Genetics for about two years, it was soon decided to go entirely by the name, Alta Genetics.
One year later in 1996, Wijnand Pon parted ways from Semex in Canada to begin a joint venture with the expanded genetic powerhouse, Alta Genetics. His plan was to prove and market bulls in northern Europe under the company name AltaPon. With this addition, Alta Genetics was sampling sires in the US, Canada and Netherlands. At the same time, Alta had secured wholly-owned subsidiaries in Germany and Brazil to expand global reach.
Three years later, Koepon Holding, owned by Wijnand Pon, became the primary shareholder of Alta Genetics stock on the Toronto Stock Exchange. With this purchase of additional company shares, AltaPon merged with Alta Genetics to integrate product development, marketing and support services between North America and Europe.
One year later in the summer of 2000, Koepon Holding purchased the remaining shares of Alta Genetics, making it once again a privately-owned company.
During this time, the dairy industry saw evolutions that would frame Alta Genetics’ direction for the future. Farms were getting larger, and fewer farms remained in operation. With larger dairies came higher demands for quality service, revealing traditional semen salespeople had to evolve into genetic and reproductive consultants focused on creating value. Recognizing this trend, Alta realigned its focus to embrace partnerships with the largest, most progressive producers in the world.
At the same time, Alta decided to confront the brutal fact that bull proofs historically fluctuated invariably and progressive producers shouldn’t have to settle for such inconsistent data. Despite research strides in sire evaluation accuracy and reliability, there was often still disappointment when a bull received his second-crop proof and dropped drastically in numbers. Alta proactively collected DNA from large dairies throughout the US to learn that 25% of daughters included in a bull’s proof were misidentified. This shocking discovery proved to be a major factor in bull proof instability. With one in four daughters of any given sire misidentified, proof numbers were certainly skewed, and the Alta team was determined to lead change to overcome the misleading information.
From this discovery, the Alta Advantage Program was born in 2001. This new progeny testing program took proof accuracy to a new level and allowed for the most efficient and uncompromised application of the program.
The 175 herds averaging 1000 cows provided early and accurate data from herd management software programs. Large contemporary groups created true measures for genetic deviations, and with all herds managing cows in freestall or dry lot environments, the risk of preferential treatment was mitigated. If genetics could perform in extreme environments, they could perform anywhere in the world.
Partnering with these large, progressive Alta Advantage herds allowed Alta to not only manage the accurate identification of all daughters entering a sire’s proof, but also to gather the data necessary to develop in-house evaluations for sire fertility. This evaluation, known as ConceptPlus, became the first of its kind in the AI industry, dawning on an era of progressive dairies facing reproductive challenges and required efficiencies. ConceptPlus sires instilled confidence that their designation offered 3% higher conception rates and became the industry standard based on actual confirmed pregnancies as opposed to non-return rates.
Then in 2009, the advent of genomics delivered drastic changes in the way sires were proven and marketed. A simple hair sample held the secret to improved genetic progress by ultimately reducing generation intervals, while increasing accuracy and selection intensity. Young sires who traditionally took the back seat as “clean-up bulls” with 38% Rel began to upstage their proven counterparts as sought after 1st choice sires with their greater genetic potential and reliabilities in the mid to upper 70’s. With as much information as a traditional first-crop sire, young genomic bulls continued to gain acceptance worldwide, and Alta’s product development team is committed to sourcing the best to meet global demands.
With this new genomic technology, came the next generation of the Alta Advantage program. Alta realized a “one-size-fits-all” genetic index would no longer suffice for progressive dairy producers throughout the world. Alta staff began working with clients to help them set their own customized genetic plans, placing emphasis only on traits that drove profit on their dairies, and using genomic-proven sires to maximize genetic progress. This customized approach to genetic selection quickly gained popularity worldwide, and the program grew to over 1,000 herds. The approach also strengthened partnerships by moving from traditional product-focused visits to a more value-added, consultative approach.
Backed by an owner with unrivaled passion for the dairy industry, Alta has made a pledge to provide paramount products, programs, services and people to help progressive dairies everywhere to succeed. Under Wijnand Pon and Koepon Holding’s leadership since 2000, Alta has grown from selling four million annual semen doses to over 15 million in 2015. With AI production centers now in six countries, retail markets in 13 countries and wholesale markets in another 85 countries, international commerce has driven global sales. Fueled by his desire to become the biggest and best AI company in the world, Wijnand Pon’s love for leading dairy genetics and his respect for profitable dairy businesses remains at the core of Alta for years to come.