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A Man Named Rock-Solid As A Rock

by Neil Manley

John Rockefeller Prentice, the son of E. Parmalee Prentice and Alta Rockefeller Prentice, was born December 17, 1902. We, who were his employees at American Breeders Service, knew him as "Rock." We only used the name Mr. Prentice when we were telling our customers about this great man.

In order to understand Mr. Prentice, we must study the efforts of his father, E. Parmalee Prentice, to improve the productive genetics of farm animals. In about 1910, Rock's father and mother bought 1,400 acres of land near Williamstown, MA. On this farm, as time past, two or more geneticists were employed by Mr. Prentice, to help to develop more profitable farm animals, particularly cattle and poultry.

Sometime in the "teens" Mr. Prentice hired a cattleman to purchase a herd of top producing Guernsey cattle. One can well imagine this cattleman selected for popular pedigree, body confirmation and eye appeal. These cattle were brought to this farm; named Mt. Hope Farm, and they did not produce as Mr. Prentice thought they should. This inspired him to write a book "Breeding Profitable Dairy Cattle." In this book, he took the breed associations to task for their methods of evaluating cattle and failure to place emphasis on production. For this reason the breed associations, Holstein, Jersey, Guernsey, etc. condemned Mr. Prentice's book.

In addition to the book, Mr. Prentice financed the founding of a breed association in which a cow had to produce at least 400 pounds of butter fat per year. She need not be registered, and color or spots were not considered in the evaluation of her value. This club was known as The American Dairy Cattle Club.

Mr. E. Parmalee was a corporation lawyer. The Prentice mansion at Mount Hope Farm was completed in 1929. In an address by Dr. Dave Bartlett, who for many years was in charge of the veterinary division of ABS, made at a meeting in 1994 of the National Association of Animal Breeders, the following was stated "In the early 1920's, Rock Prentice's father, Col. E. Parmalee Prentice, was uniquely aware of and concerned with world population increases and the interplay of hunger and history. He committed at Mt. Hope Farm to applicable research to improve farm animals, poultry, sheep, swine and cattle, utilizing the then recently re-discovered principles 50+ years earlier by Gregory Mendel."

Dr. Bartlett went further to say, "At Mt. Hope, with poultry, substantial increases in egg production were shown to follow use of roosters selected on application of progeny test methods. Roosters were selected based on the production of eggs, number and weight of eggs, laid by daughter hens." Mt. Hope genetic strains of poultry were actively accepted. Accomplishments at Mt. Hope received worldwide acclaim. Notably, the principle was established that a sire should be selected upon his genotype, as determined by demonstrated production of his progeny, rather than, by simply type."

In 1938, Dr. Enos Perry, a professor at Rutgers University in New Jersey, organized the first cooperative of farmers to breed cows artificially. The idea probably originated in Russia and Denmark.

Before telling about the entrance of "Rock" Prentice into the artificial cattle breeding business, we need to learn some things about his "growing up years." From Dr. Bartlett's 1994 speech to the NAAB, he said "At the close of the 1930's, Rock was a practicing trial lawyer with a prestigious Chicago firm. Having declined, at his father's direction, an appointment to West Point. Instead he attended Yale, was elected to Phi Beta Kappa and later graduated from Yale Law School in 1932. Rock was a brilliant student; however, he managed to get himself suspended from Yale. He had been cutting too many classes. He was caught shooting craps. He had accumulated debts. Again quoting from Dr. Bartlett, "Disgraced, afraid to face his stern father, Rock disappeared, got a job, and until found, lived with an assumed name. He worked four years for a Boston wholesale hardware firm to accumulate money to return to Yale. At Yale, he continued to work nights and weekends as a telephone operator for a hospital. For several years he was totally separated from his family for support.

The writer heard many times that Rock graduated from Yale if not with the highest-grade average but near the top. Rock graduated from Yale Law School at the age of 31. From a paper written by Harlan Koch, an early employee of Rock, Harlan said "Before World War II, Rock and other members of the Chicago Farmer's Club had heard of the idea of collecting semen from a bull and then breeding of several cows with a single collection. Literally millions of sperm were gathered in a single collection and it only took one sperm to fertilize a cow's egg.

In the spring of 1941, Rock hired a county agent from New York to help organize and develop an artificial breeding stud at Barrington, IL, which later moved to Elgin, Ill. This organization was named American Dairy-Guernsey Associates. American Dairy in the name tells you who the primary mover was in getting this new stud up and in operation. The county agent was Phillip I. Higley--note as of November 15, 2001, Phil is still very active, lives in Fort Walton, Beach FLA, and will celebrate his 99th birthday in June of 2002.

In March, 1941, months before Pearl Harbor, Rock volunteered in the army as a private. He served the pacific theater. He became a Captain in the Artillery. This period of patriotic service interrupted the early phase of his AI efforts. An interesting thing about his military service is that in order to get accepted, Rock passed his army physical by memorizing the lines of letters on the eye chart, forward and backward. How many 38 year olds would be this anxious to get in the army?

Phil kept the Elgin stud going till Rock returned in 1946. Phil had a rough time during this five-year period. Dairymen wanted to use AIl; some tried and at times conception was not what dairymen demanded. One story, the writer heard at meetings and discussions with employees that had been with the organization prior to my employment in February 1949 was the following: It seems Phil was having real trouble, poor conception, and, if conception was poor, "just try to convince a dairyman he should continue AI." Phil, in his desperation went out and bought a young bull. When Rock heard about the young bull, the word came back to Phil, "Take your choice-- get rid of that bull or out you go." I rather gather Phil got rid of the young bull. He was still around doing a great job as president of the company in the 60's.

When you consider the tools used today in measuring the transmitting ability of a bull, EPD's (Estimated-Predicated Difference) which is based on many factors, production of daughters, environmental conditions, etc., the daughter-dam comparison from the beginning in 1941, qualifying a bull to qualify in a Rock Prentice stud was a big improvement over having no production records at all. Rock's program provided that there had to be at least the production records of five daughters of a bull compared with the production records of their five dams. As we look back, this was the best tool available at the time. It surely beat only eyeballing a young sire. It did not take into account different environment, age, and many other tools we have today.

At this time, AI Cooperatives were springing up all over the country. For the most part, the important thing to keep dairymen happy was to, "get the cows with calf." It took a five year old bull usually to have a minimum of five daughter-dam comparisons-the young bulls used had a big advantage in getting cows with calf.

Cooperatives of those days did not welcome competition, especially Agricultural Corporations from Chicago with Rockerfeller money. Again from Dr. Bartlett's talk mentioned earlier, Dr. Bartlett said, "I believe his general motives were genuine. He wanted to carry on and advance the philosophy and work of his father at Mount Hope toward providing more food for an expanding human population. He wanted to advance dairy cattle above the level, which his father referred to as "medieval." He wanted to make possible "a better living for cattle owners."

Rock cared for his employees and consistently tried to provide for their best interests. He use to say something like this, "It takes good men and women to make a good organization." During our years (21 years) some of the great men and women we had the privilege of knowing and associating with were-Phil Highley, Lee Lamb, Dr. Elwin Willet, Dr. Irv Elliot, Mat Dietrick, Dr. Dave Bartlett and Dr. Les Larsen (Veterinarians), Lebert Shultz, Harlan Koch, Virginia Johnson, Lyn Tremaine, Clint Meyer, Charles Waldrop, Robert Elsas, Andy Divine, Alex Buchanan, John Peterson, Clyde Waddell, Dr. Robert Walton, Don Pelkey and many others. Ruth Hyland was Rock's personal secretary. In speaking of men, he said, "Behind every good man is a good woman."

In Late 1946, there were three fairly large cooperative studs in Wisconsin-purebred breeders were dominant on their boards. The Registered Breeders liked to sell their young bulls to these studs. They wanted legislation passed to prevent Rock's Illinois stud from importation of bull semen across the Illinois state line into Wisconsin. To counter this move on the part of the cooperatives, Rock bought land in Madison, Wisconsin and moved the stud there on January 7, 1947. The stud was renamed Wisconsin Scientific Breeding Instate (WSBI) It was organized as a not for profit organization.

The writer, in December 1948 was an assistant county agent doing 4-H work. I liked my county. I loved 4H work and thought I had one of the best jobs in my state. The county agent called me while I was conducting a senior 4H "fun night"- He said, "Two men will be here tomorrow morning to discuss a job traveling in Georgia and Florida." My answer that night was "I don't think I'm interested. I love my job here." The men, turned out to be Phil Higley and Maury Gaston, (N.C.Fieldman) for Rock's newest bull stud, Southeastern A.B.A at Asheville, N.C. This stud had begun operation on January 1, 1948. Some months earlier, Rock had established a bull stud in Carmel, Indiana ABA. That morning in mid December 1948, Phil gave us a run-down on this man, named "Rock."

He told us some of the highlights on the life of this man named "Rock." Phil seemed like a good and truthful man, but it was just too good for a doubting East Tennessee "hillbilly" to believe.

On the following Sunday, the county agent and our wives drove to Asheville to visit the stud. Here we met another great man, Mat Dietrick. Mat told the same story as Phil.

Over the years, I have told Phil that I never found a single word not true that Phil and Mat told us about this great man in December of 1948.

This is the way the bull stud - Southeastern and Indiana operated in 1949. The crew in Indiana were up at 2AM to collect semen from the bulls. The semen was diluted with egg yolk and distilled water and refrigerated with water frozen in number 2 tin cans, dipped in water to start ice melting-can wrapped in brown wrapping paper and then test tubes were placed against cans (2) and wrapped. Then it was off to Indianapolis Airport for the trip to Asheville. A private plane was used arriving in Asheville in the early morning. The semen was re-packaged for technicians scattered over NC, GA, and FL. The plan was for the packages to be in the hands of the breeding technicians by early the 2nd day. (Note at that time the advice to technician, "don't use semen the third day unless weather does not allow a fresh shipment to get to you."

The pilot Bill Clark, spent the night in Asheville. The process was repeated at the Asheville stud early the next morning. Bill was off to Indiana with the product for Indiana technicians.

Rock, when meeting up with Bill was often heard to say, "Bill are you still living?" Rock had reference to the difficult landing conditions at the Asheville airport at this time.

It was necessary for local dairymen to organize and enroll at least 1,000 cows to be bred during the year. In the states where this D.S.M (District Sales Manager) worked, we had the cooperation of the extension Dairymen and the Dairy Department heads. This was not true in many states. I was glad where I worked I heard no anti-Rockefeller or Prentice "put downs."

One of my embarrassing moments occurred when I was able to get an invitation by asking an acquaintance of mine to get an opportunity to tell about our program to the Board of Directors of a small bull stud. I made the mistake of mentioning it in my weekly report-Rock saw it and decided he should come with me. When I announced to my acquaintance that Rock would be with me at the meeting, they refused to allow him to come to the meeting. Rock was furious. He just couldn't understand why. Neither did I, but deep down I knew--the feeling toward Rockerfellers and Prentices in some areas of our country.

What were some of the many accomplishments of Rock Prentice years in his zeal to improve the productivity of cattle through the use of artificial insemination?

Among the Firsts:

1950 First successful embryo transfer. Early on, Rock, employed Dr. Elwin Willet, a geneticist to head up American Scientific Breeding Institute with headquarters in Madison.

In 1950, Dr. Willet was successful. The writer remembers a later transfer by Dr. Willet in early 1951. It was almost unbelievable to me that I was seeing a live embryo that would produce a calf in a donor cow nine months later.

1953-first organization to reach one million 1st services in a year.

1954 First calf born in North America from frozen semen. Early that year, a laboratory in Cambridge, England was working on the possibility of freezing bovine semen. They were not having much luck until a laboratory assistant made a mistake and used the wrong diluter. As I remember, glycerol made the difference in success and failure. When Rock heard of the success in Cambridge, he was successful in bringing Dr. Chris Polge to the USA for consultation. He employed Dr. Basil Luyet, renowned scientist on low temperature biology, to study basic problems of sperm freezing and thawing.

A try was made with dry ice, but it was not successful. At the time in 1954, something colder than dry ice was needed. Liquid nitrogen (temperature 320 degrees F) seemed to be the answer. The problem was that no container was available at this time that would hold this temperature for any length of time.

Rock risked 100% of the costs for the first order to manufacture liquid nitrogen refrigerators for storage and shipping. As I remember, the initial cost was $250,000. This original refrigerator would hold temperature for some 3 weeks. They were re- serviced every two weeks by a tractor-trailer rig out of Madison Wisconsin. A.I. Technicians met the truck at designated truck stops. I remember the Atlanta, GA stop was at 12 midnight. About this time, (1953-54) studs were closed, as they were no longer needed with the coming of the frozen semen into practical use. The new name of the association became American Breeders Service with headquarters at DeForest, Wisconsin, a small town north of Madison.

Rock did not patent this new technology. It was his gift to the industry. These refrigerators have been adapted for many uses in science and medicine and are in daily use worldwide. Much improvement has been made in these holding tanks, and now many do not need to be serviced but every 4-5 months.

1956 First to include progeny tested beef sires, polled Herefords.

1963 First in-house dairy progeny test program operated by a semen producing organization.

Rock, in 1957, recognized frustration within the nation's Dairy Herd Improvement Association Program and its critical effects upon sire selection. This was caused from the backlog of millions of milk production records that could not be processed because of obsolete equipment. In 1957 he gave $150,000 to the USDA, making possible conversion from punch cards to tape and to fast electronic data processing machines.

Rock's ownership of American Breeders Service came to a close in 1967 with the sale of the company to W.R. Grace Co. Rock's failing health necessitated that ABS be sold.

Many times we heard Rock at our meetings say "the objective of American Breeders Service is to be breed the most cows to the best bulls most efficiently."

Rock many times quoted to us what he called ABS "Foundation Stones" 1. Good Men 2. Great Proven Sires 3. Free Competition 4. Research-He believed the best stays best through research 5. Capital. He was fortunate and cattle industry was fortunate that he had capital available to make his fathers dairy efforts come to fruition.

It is remarkable to this writer that Rock spent much of his early years at odds with his father, yet he spent a good part of his life proving that his father's ideas and writings were beneficial to the future of agriculture. Rock respected his father and adored his mother. This "Great man" left us on June 13, 1972. The writer was never promised anything by Rock that he did not deliver. Having known him has enriched my life and the lives of others who were closely associated with him.

Please email me with comments or suggestions. Feel free to write me Neil Manley, 465 West Old AJ Hwy, New Market, TN 37820

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