Dairy farm cow continues the tradition of Illini Nellie family

Nellie and the other five living members of the Illini Nellie family line stand outside on the Illinois Dairy Farm on April 13. 

By Annabeth Carlson

A marked boulder lies on the lawn of the University’s Purebred Dairy Barn. Most days, hundreds of pedestrians and commuters unknowingly pass by the stone outside the Illinois Dairy Farm. But when a Brown Swiss cow posed next to it for a picture on April 13, she was standing beside the gravestone of her ancestor, Illini Nellie. 

The cow, also named Nellie, is the 16th-generation member of the Illini Nellie family. The original Nellie was born in 1927 at the Illinois Dairy Farm, where she spent her life. As the recognized leader of the herd, Nellie was considered a “diva” and became the 1937 world record holder for milk production, with 29, 569.5 pounds of milk and 1,200.41 pounds of butterfat. She held the title for 12 years. 

People came from around the world to see her, including politicians, students and residents of the Champaign-Urbana community. The Illinois State Legislature even appropriated funding to the University in the 1930s after seeing Nellie and saying, “This is worth $100,000.” Even after her death in 1940, her lineage has continued at the University.

Despite all that the Illini Nellie family has accomplished for the University, many may not realize it, according to Henry Hoane, the Dairy Farm manager. This was the reason that Hoane and his colleagues decided to take photos of the six living members of the Illini Nellie family to commemorate its history at the University. 

The Nellie who stood by the grave of her 16th generation great-grandmother, Illini Nellie, is thought to be just like her by those who work there.

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Nellie is currently one of four Brown Swiss cows at the farm, and she is the only one that is milking. According to Hoane, her last lactation was 28,000 pounds of milk in 305 days. 

“It is less than what the original Nellie’s world record was, but she has done it for about three lactations now, so she should surpass what the original Nellie made,” Hoane said.

Nellie is even considered to be a diva, just like the original Illini Nellie. 

“She knows she is pretty,” said Jake Stewart, senior in ACES and a student worker at the farm.

As cars and joggers pass by, she moos at each one.

“She loves the attention, she likes people to know she is around,” Hoane said.

Erik Sheppelman, a student worker at the farm and sophomore in ACES, explained that when Nellie is out on the lots, she never lets people pet her on the head. She likes to get her back scratched, so she will always turn if people try to scratch her head.

“She’s a little ornery like that, she likes to have her way,” he said.

Sheppelman also took Nellie to the Illinois State Fair for the first time last August. He said he has Brown Swiss cows at home and saw the potential in Nellie to be a show cow. 

To prepare for the fair, Sheppelman said they practiced walking Nellie and groomed her. He said they worked on Nellie’s diet to fill her out a little bit and perfected her appearance.

“Showing cattle is nothing but a beauty pageant,” he said. “It’s all about how they look and how they walk.”

At the State Fair, Nellie won second in her class, second in the intermediate class and fourth overall in her breed.

When Nellie is not preparing for the State Fair, she leads a simple life, according to Stewart and Sheppelman.

She gets up at 4 a.m. each day to be milked, and then spends a majority of her time in the feed bunk, Stewart said. He explained that her feed consists of grains and wheat, including corn silage, cotton seed, brewer’s grain and a mineral, vitamin and protein mix. 

“A cow’s life is generally pretty boring,” Sheppelman said. “The only thing they have to do is eat, sleep and make milk.”

Nellie’s role in the actual research at the University Dairy Farm is pretty minimal as well, Hoane said. Most of their research is done on black and white cows. He said that Nellie is there for teaching purposes, breeding identification and, of course, to preserve the lineage of the Illini Nellie family.

Nellie has two daughters: The oldest is a year-and-a-half old and the youngest was born last November. Both are named Nellie as well, as is the tradition of the Brown Swiss family.

Hoane said that his favorite part of working with Nellie is that there are so many people who want to help take care of her.

“All the students are amazingly in love with her, they all baby her,” he said. 

Sheppelman attested to this by saying that Nellie is a really good cow to get people interested in cows and dairy.

“She is gentle, she likes to be around people and she just is a great spokes-cow for dairy farming in general,” he said. “People can touch her and see how nice cows are, because she probably weighs 1,700 pounds and that’s pretty intimidating for people who aren’t around cows a lot.”

To those who work at the farm, Nellie is a living symbol of the history of the farm and the jobs they do there. She represents all of the good that came from the first Illini Nellie, who rests as her own symbol as the diva who started it all.

“Only two University employees have been buried on campus,” Hoane said. “The first being the inaugural president of the University, John Milton Gregory, and the second being Illini Nellie.” 

Annabeth can be reached at [email protected].