“Whatever You Do, Don’t Get Rid of the Dutch Belts”: Dorothy O’Neill Hornback’s Impact on the Breed | Bestyet A.I Sires | Grazing Genetics from Dutch Belted and Milking Shorthorns

Updated 2/21/2024

More than forty years ago, the Dutch Belted breed was perilously close to extinction. This was when my late father, Kenneth Hoffman, discovered Dorothy O’Neill Hornback and her herd of purebred Dutch Belts in Manteno, Illinois.

About Dorothy O’Neill Hornback and her cows

“I’ll never forget the first time I went to look at the O’Neill herd,” Kenneth said. “I walked into that 100-year-old barn and there stood a living library, genetics of the cattle that roamed the alpine pastures of Canton Appenzell and the Tyrol valley of Austria more than 300 years ago. I’d been fascinated with belted cattle since I was a schoolboy and saw them in Compton’s Encyclopedia, and here I was seeing this historic, purebred herd with my own eyes.”

My father was an established breeder of Milking Shorthorns by 1981, so he decided to follow his lifelong dream of breeding belted cattle and started searching for breeding stock. What he found was that the breed had not only become quite rare (due to a number of factors including the trend toward volume-only dairy production focus as well as a government dairy buy-out program intended to boost milk prices by encouraging culling), but very few of the remaining Dutch Belts were being milked or selected for dairy traits and the other aspects that make the breed special. That’s why he was even more excited to discover the O’Neill herd that was registered and selected for milk.

Dorothy and Harry kept meticulous milk records, weighing and recording the milk produced by each cow at every milking. They were also on DHIA test. This greatly impressed my father and convinced him that Dutch Belted cattle could be serious dairy animals.

Dorothy’s parents, Charles and E.T. O’Neill, founded their Dutch Belted herd in the 1920s with stock from Ohio, Iowa, Indiana, Minnesota, Florida, and Vermont. (They were also breeders of Morgan horses.)

On their deathbeds, they told Dorothy, “Whatever you do, don’t get rid of the Dutch Belts.” She took that charge to heart, continuing to breed and register the cattle through many personal hardships including illness and death in the family. Her husband, Harry Hornback, worked with her to keep the dairy herd going.

She would share the belted genetics with interested new breeders by selling some of her prized heifer calves. By studying their records and evaluating their conformation, Kenneth identified the best brood cows in Dorothy’s herd, specifically Lessie Louise “O”, O’Neill’s Pearl Arbor, and O’Neill Farms Jamie, and told Dorothy to let him know when any of them had heifer calves so he could purchase them as foundation females.

Getting breeding stock from Dorothy’s herd

The first two of his pick had bull calves. When Dorothy called and said, “Sorry, Lessie had a bull calf,” Kenneth was disappointed, of course, but it got him thinking.  By now, after researching and calling around the country, he had noted that there just weren’t many bulls available in A.I. When he asked other breeders if they’d considered collecting any bulls to widen the selection, they often said, “Oh, I thought maybe someone else would do that, so I could use the semen.”

So, Kenneth bought Lessie’s bull calf, O’Neill’s Luke Duke Hoffman, to raise and collect, realizing that he just might have to be the “someone else” who would go to the extra expense and hassle of dealing with bulls for the sake of the breed. Winnie remembers hauling that first one, Luke Duke, to the custom collection stud. That was essentially the beginning of Bestyet A.I. Sires (although Bestyet James would be our first homebred A.I. sire a few years later). Dreamweaver, the first of Pearl Arbor’s sons we kept, followed shortly thereafter. Boston and He-Man came later.

Happily, Dorothy did end up with a few heifer calves for Kenneth before too long, and she also called when one of her best old cows, Lucky Lady, turned up open. Dorothy had a small barn and only 40 acres since she hadn’t been able to buy out her siblings at her parents’ death, so she couldn’t afford to feed a dry, open cow, no matter how good the cow. Kenneth could see that to gather and build a herd of the best genetics available, he couldn’t afford to let a cow like that go to market just because Dorothy’s family had missed rebreeding her, so he bought her and promptly got her with calf to Dreamweaver, resulting in the heifer calf Bestyet Lucky’s Lady Bell, who produced milk and calves for many years in our herd (the photo at the top of this blog post shows Lucky Lady with young Lady Bell).

Dorothy’s husband and son both died of cancer in a short period and it became impossible for her to keep on with the cows. As painful as it was for her to give them up, it helped her to know that we were carrying on with the bloodlines she had worked so hard to maintain.

Looking back as we look forward

For six decades, the O’Neill herd preserved irreplaceable Dutch Belted genetics as other breeders sold out. It’s not hyperbole to say that Dorothy’s persistence is one of the major reasons the breed is still alive and thriving today.

Descendants of her animals are found throughout the nation’s Dutch Belted herds today. In that way, her memory and her life’s work live on.

What it means for us today

As breeders, we owe deep gratitude to Dorothy and her family for their sacrifice and determination to keep Dutch Belted cattle around for the benefit of future generations.

When I think back on Dorothy’s story, it reminds me that all of us who raise Dutch Belted cattle have inherited a responsibility from her. It’s a responsibility to keep breeding and registering these animals, to share these cattle with others as we mentor new breeders, and to remember the past to guide our decisions today that affect the breed tomorrow. 

She entrusted us with her precious cattle and the legacy she left should inspire us to persist through the challenges we face.

This is Jaimie, one of the first heifers we got from the O'Neill herd. In her second lactation, she gave 23,000 pounds of milk, which was the most in the herd at the time.

 

 

 

This is Jamie, one of the first heifers we got from the O’Neill herd. In her second lactation, she gave 23,000 pounds of milk, which was the most in the herd at the time.