By Sandhya Somashekhar
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 27, 2006; LZ03
Time was that a dairy farm was as common a sight in these parts as a sparkling new subdivision is today. But a bull like Round Oak Rag Apple Elevation, born on one of those very farms 40 years ago, comes around only once a century.
The sturdy Holstein stud had so many offspring that just about every milk-drinking American has consumed some of their product.
Soon, the famous Loudoun County native will be memorialized with a marker somewhere near his birthplace, the former Round Oak farm, which is now a tract of new homes in Airmont crisscrossed by asphalt roads. Officials are speaking with private landowners as well as with officials of the Virginia Department of Transportation to select a spot, and they are considering the Loudoun County Fairgrounds as a temporary home for the plaque.
The black-and-bronze plaque was unveiled at the Loudoun Heritage Farm Museum in Sterling over the weekend as part of the museum's "Elevation Celebration," attended by dozens of Holstein breeders paying homage to the animal that the Holstein International Association dubbed "Bull of the Century."
"He is certainly one of the greatest animals that have been bred," said Bill Harrison, president of the museum and a former dairyman himself. "He's been compared to Secretariat in the horse industry."
Harrison was the proud owner of several of Elevation's offspring, but he is hardly alone. Elevation spawned an estimated total of 8.8 million children and grandchildren, and thanks to technology allowing his sperm to be frozen and shipped, many of them can be found in pastures around the world, from South America to Australia.
The Elevation plaque, and a companion exhibit at the museum, are as much a celebration of a remarkable bull as they are a salute to technological advances in cattle breeding and to a clever farmer named Ronald A. Hope, whose sharp eye for good genes led to Elevation's auspicious birth. Hope had been carefully refining his stock of Holsteins for generations before breeding an exceptional cow named Round Oak Ivanhoe with a Wisconsin bull named Tidy Burke Elevation.
The Hopes realized that the issue of that union was special from the August 1965 day he was born. But they couldn't imagine the reverberations he would generate in the dairy industry.
"It was like throwing a rock in the ocean," said George A. Miller, 80, a cousin of the Hopes' and a dairy breeder from Loudoun who went on to work for the cooperative that bought Elevation. "The waves just keep going and going, and you don't know how far they're going to go."
In this case, a genetic tsunami occurred. According to researchers, the power of Elevation's genes has intensified over the years, with successive generations of offspring becoming more and more productive. The U.S. Department of Agriculture is using his DNA in its research to further accelerate the productivity of American dairy cows.
But the techniques that Ronald Hope used to design such an extraordinary animal have been lost with technological progress, said Donnie Hope, 64, Ronald Hope's second son.
"That doesn't happen anymore," said Hope, who lives near Berryville and works on his older brother Ronnie Jr.'s beef ranch. "Now breeding is determined by a university professor instead of the farmer in the field."
Ronald Hope Sr. died in 1991, 12 years after Elevation was euthanized by his new owners.
Harrison, who served as Loudoun's agriculture extension agent for almost 30 years, said Elevation helped to bring prosperity to the county. In 1949, there were 405 dairy farms in Loudoun, according to "The Story of Loudoun's Dairy Industry," a new book written by Harrison, Miller and Carol S. McComb, another farmer. By 1997, that number had dwindled to 14, and today there is only one: Dogwood Farm in Purcellville.
The rapid change in the landscape has been hard to fathom, said Miller, who now lives in Ohio.
"It's almost like a fairytale," he said. "You can't hardly believe all this has taken place before your eyes."