A Legendary Leader

September 8, 2009 07:00 PM

Retired after a lifetime of service to the dairy industry and 38 years on the World Dairy Expo Board of Directors, Robert Walton continues to work with his award-winning herd of polled Simmentals.
Look around World Dairy Expo and chances are whatever you like most, Robert Walton had a hand in it.

From today's expansive commercial exhibits and large international presence to the world-class sales, intercollegiate cattle judging contests, kids' tours, early-morning coffee and donut service in the barns—even the Coliseum's colored shavings and formally dressed World Classic ringmen—all bear the mark of Walton's influence.

Then there are the cows: The endless succession of great daughters and gets of bulls—SWD Valiant, most notably—along with their offspring that grace the barns, sale and show rings are living testaments to Walton's progressive genetic ideals. Their impact is immeasurable and may prove to be Walton's greatest legacy.

That's not surprising for the world-class geneticist who graduated from Oklahoma State University, earned a scholarship to the Royal Agricultural College of Sweden and engineered and installed the first elevated milking parlor in England. Back home, he earned a master's degree from Oklahoma State and a Ph.D. from Iowa State University, then taught and led cattle-judging teams at the University of Kentucky before landing at American Breeders Service (ABS) in 1962 as its geneticist.

"I screwed up that job so badly that four years later, they made me president,” Walton jokes. "What I actually came to do was introduce a whole new idea—essentially what became Expected Progeny Differences—because despite all the hard work that had been done, at that point we still hadn't made much progress in breeding. I had a pipe dream and I put it into practice.”

What is surprising about Walton is the depth and breadth of his commitment, not simply to dairy cattle, but to the quality and quantity of the cattle industry worldwide, as well as to community and family. At one time, Walton belonged to many different boards of directors, though he's now trimmed that to six. He opened markets for U.S. genetics across Europe, Australia, New Zealand, Great Britain, Japan and the Soviet Union, rubbing shoulders with such leaders as Mikhail Gorbachev. He recruited and directed the efforts of a young Russian scientist who ultimately helped develop the first successful cloning process for farm animals (while also unwittingly advancing human stem cell technology).

Walton's legacy lives on through the many individuals who worked and trained under his management at ABS. In addition, he's had a major role in changing the landscape of World Dairy Expo and the city of Madison. Walton served as honorary committee chair when the Exhibition Hall was built at the Alliant Energy Center. During his tenure as chairman of the Greater Madison Convention & Visitors Bureau, Monona Terrace was constructed, revitalizing downtown Madison. As chair-man of the World Dairy Center Authority, he assisted with the development of that property and construction of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection headquarters.

Walton served 38 years on the World Dairy Expo Board of Directors, from 1971 to 2008, making him the longest-seated board member in the event's history. He was president of ABS for 20 years and has been called back twice since retiring as a consultant for the company. For the past 40 years, Walton has raised and improved his own herd of polled Simmentals on a spread near DeForest, Wis. He still tends to daily chores with occasional help from his son and does all his own inseminating, claiming that he's "the only bull allowed on the farm.” For the last 11 years, Walton Simmentals have earned top ranking in the Wisconsin Beef Improvement Association's bull test.

"They're all trying to beat me, but I've managed to do it 11 years in a row even though I tell them what bulls I'm using from the start,” Walton admits. "I'm out in front, but I've got to work hard at it!”

At the 2001 World Dairy Expo, Walton arranged a spectacular one-day display of ten cloned, identical Holstein heifers all the same age. "It was the first time in the history of the industry that anything like this had been on public display,” Walton says. "Suddenly people realized this technology was within their reach.”

During the early days of World Dairy Expo, Walton started morning coffee, milk and donut delivery to the barns. He credits the idea to his days of working cattle strings on the state fair circuit. "We didn't have a McDonald's where you could get breakfast, and we didn't have modern coffeemakers, so we initiated the ABS Coffee Run to serve people who slept in the barns with their cows. It quickly became a source of pride for our employees, even though they had to get up by 4 a.m. to be there in uniform for a volunteer job.”

Walton himself takes a shift on the coffee run every year. He also helps with the school kids' tours, having brought the idea to Expo initially, and walks the commercial exhibits greeting friends and volunteers.

One thing Walton's never done, and has no plans to do even now in his retirement, is to show cattle at World Dairy Expo. While he's walked across the colored shavings many times—he introduced the unique colors when ABS initiated its Americana sale—he has always believed that, because of his position with ABS, showing or judging at Expo would constitute a conflict of interest.

Not long ago, Walton's kids unpacked all the awards he's accumulated in a lifetime of accomplishments and hung the plaques and trophies on his basement wall. There's the 1985 National Dairy Shrine Guest of Honor award; the 1970 PMD degree from Harvard Business School; the 1985 NAMA National Agribusiness Award; the 1982 World Dairy Expo Industry Person of the Year award; distinguished service awards from the National Association of Animal Breeders, World Beef Expo and American Dairy Science Association; and many more.

Certainly longevity has something to do with Walton's success. "I'm a survivor. It's been a wonderful run with a wonderful organization,” he modestly proclaims. But endurance alone couldn't possibly account for Walton's many accomplishments. WDE

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