The Land of Milk and Nellie

Record-breaking milker Nellie the Cow. Photo courtesy of College of ACES
From the South Farms barns rises a record-breaking milker.

In the long history of the University of Illinois, there are but two individuals granted burial spots on the grounds of this institution.

One is John Milton Gregory, the University’s first president.

The other is a cow.

Trudge along the back lanes of the University’s South Farms, and you’ll come across the plaque on a boulder that marks the final resting place of Illini Nellie. In her heyday, the Brown Swiss beauty drew thousands of admirers a week, enchanted legislators when they visited and almost won the campus May Queen election of 1937.

Like rich cream rising to the top, Illini Nellie stands, er, uncowed before the other towering achievements of the University – 22 Nobelists and 20 Pulitzer Prize winners, to name just a few. Her claim to fame is – literally – udderly amazing: an astounding, world-record-breaking 29,569.5 pounds of milk and 1,200.4 pounds of butterfat produced in her best year, with lifetime totals of 194,676.5 and 7,498, respectively.

A presence at the University since her 1927 birth in its barns, Illini Nellie boasted a proud lineage of the best of the bovines – her mother, McJohn’s Nellie, was herself an outstanding animal. Eleven generations later, Illini Banker C. Bountiful, an Illini Nellie descendant, placed 13th at the 2011 Illinois State Fair.

But as often happens with creatures of true genius – from Albert Einstein to Seabiscuit to Lady Gaga – Illini Nellie had her own quirky ways.

According to her late historian, W.W. Yapp, Classes of 1911, 1914 (The Illini Nellie Story, Department of Dairy Science, College of ACES, 1961), the prodigious producer milked her status for all it was worth. Recognized by the herd as the natural leader, Illini Nellie maintained an imperious distance. When time came to return to the barn, she made sure it was she who headed the line. The copious lactator didn’t care much to make friends indoors either, becoming notorious for stealing hay from her stallmate: Herdsmen tackled this problem by removing the victimized cow but leaving the chow.

While Illini Nellie may have lorded it over beasts in the barnyard, she charmed the politicians who’d swing by every two years before setting University appropriations. Poised coyly before the milk bottles and butter tubs that – all stacked up in a grand gesture – represented her world record, the curiously compelling cow found legislators fighting to have their photo taken with her. One of them gushed of her prowess, “This is great advertising. You know, this is worth $100,000 [in funding] to the University of Illinois.”

Character flaws aside, Illini Nellie rose to her calling. From her first milking on April 25, 1930, to her last on Nov. 8, 1940 (just 11 days before her death), she broke at least four world records, creaming the competition by increasing average poundage for her breed nearly 8 percent. The record stood until a competitor squeezed past it a dozen years after Illini Nellie’s death.

And upon her demise, Illini Nellie reached nearly mythological status as her saga was memorialized in a poem by Don L. Carrell of the Illinois Geological Survey.

“The milk of human kindness lighted Nellie’s eyes,” he mourned, “And vibrant glamour oozed with Nellie’s sighs. … We loved her for her gracious, regal manner/Her coat of horns remains upon our banner.”