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She is long, leggy and classy. Her frame is all smooth lines and voluptuous curves. Every beauty contest she enters, she wins.

In short, she is the Claudia Schiffer of the milking parlour.

Her name is Eastside Lewisdale Gold Missy - she goes by Missy for short - and, as of last week, she is worth $1.2-million, gaining her entrance to a pantheon of million-dollar North American cows that contained only five Holsteins before her.

That makes three-year-old cow the new gold standard in an industry where bovine genetics have attracted growing interest among farmers looking to better their herds and boost their profits. Missy is the Miss Canada and Miss America of Holsteins. She produces 50 per cent more milk than your average cow, a whopping 50 kilograms a day.

Bred in PEI, she is, in the words of her farm's marketing manager, Chris Parry, "extremely tall, long and stylish. She walks on great feet and legs and has a great mammary system. She's ideal for milk production. She's a good example of the breed."

When she sold at auction, Missy came with all the normal requisites of a good cow - a flawless pedigree, magnificent genetics and a string of champion showings - plus something perhaps more important: up to $3.23-million in presigned contracts. If Missy can generate the volumes of embryos her owners believe she can, and if her progeny are as world-class as she is, she could be worth even more.

"You don't run across these kind of cows very often in your lifetime," said Morris Thalen, the owner of Morsan Farms Ltd. "She did all the right things, and that just adds to her value."

Mr. Thalen will continue to raise and coddle Missy at his 3,400-head operation in Ponoka, Alta., even after a good chunk of her was sold to a Danish investor and a U.S. businessman at an Ontario auction last Wednesday. Mr. Thalen will retain some ownership of the cow, but did not disclose what percentage.

Though she has already been considered one of the top cows in the world, her thoroughbred-class price tag has cemented her as a glittering symbol of what's possible for dairy farmers, who have watched demand for merely excellent cattle slip with the world economy in the past year. For them, Missy is proof that elite cattle retain a cachet and profitability even in down times.

In the past year, the price of commercial dairy cows has tumbled by about 25 per cent. Demand for Canadian embryos, which have long been prized for their stellar genetics, has fallen in half.

That has, conversely, boosted the value of those very top cows whose embryos are still in high demand.

"The very elite are still worth a lot," said Ridley Wikkerink, a Cobble Hill, B.C. dairy farmer who also owns some of Canada's best cows. Missy is "young, she has a lot of credits to her already, and she's got a lifetime ahead of her to make money," he said.

After a brief stint in the 1980s when a tax loophole had mining executives, Hollywood stars and Wall Street bankers buying cows - at least three sold for $1-million in the '80s - cows have lost some of their celebrity appeal. But in recent years, the family farms have begun mixing a few hot-looking cows into their herds as well. Not only do they have the chance of breeding a cow that has high sales potential, they can also take embryos from their show cattle and implant them into lower-quality stock.

Better cows typically have better stamina, have fewer health problems and produce more milk - all of which makes them more profitable.

Farmers "want to milk better cows, and this is how they're getting them," said Peter English, who owns and publishes the Holstein Journal. "Even guys that really didn't give three hoots and a rain barrel about the purebred business five or 10 years ago, they're seeing the possibility and potential in keeping better cattle."

The milk output of Holsteins has already doubled in the last 30 to 40 years. But Missy is an example of what's still possible. Where the average Holstein produces 9,700 kilograms per 305-day lactation cycle, she is projected to do 14,600 kilograms.

The other advantage to having good cows: the rest of the world wants them. Though milk is the main commodity for Canada's dairy farmers, the country exports between $8 and $9-million a year in dairy cow embryos, $178-million in semen and a further $100-million in live dairy cattle.

Live sales have been hurt by the mad-cow scare, but embryo sales have been steadily increasing, largely "because of the quality of Canadian cattle and their reputation around the world," said Paul Greaves, who runs Greaveston Genetics, a seller of embryos.

With elite cows, the value of that genetic stock can be significant. Missy's owners have already pre-sold 25 embryos for $230,000. They expect her to produce 150 embryos, and were encouraged when, on their first attempt six weeks ago, they managed to harvest 19. Missy also has six bull contracts worth $500,000. If she can produce six male offspring who become sought-after sires, her owners can earn up to $500,000 from each in royalty payments from semen sales.

The risk lies in the fact that Missy is, after all, an animal. And while she is well cared-for, her reproductive capacity could be less than expected, or she could face an unanticipated early death. Subsequent embryo harvests could well produce two, or even zero, viable implants. And the likelihood of producing a half-dozen world-class bulls is something even Mr. Parry admits is "a long call."

Yet if her offspring are anything like her - and genetic indicators suggest she's likely to transmit most of her best traits - then Missy could well be worth far more than $1.2-million.

"Admittedly there's a lot of if and when. But this is all risk," said Mr. English. "This is no different than the Toronto Maple Leafs investing in a goalie or a hot-dog forward: He's supposed to produce goals. But he has to play it game by game."

Follow Nathan VanderKlippe on Twitter: @nvanderklippeOpens in a new window

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