A leader and a catalyst for change

Veterinarian David Chalack has travelled the world promoting Canadian livestock genetics, but he has never forgotten he comes from a farm near Cochrane, Alta. Chalack is a member of the Canadian Agricultural Hall of Fame and earned the Queen’s Jubilee Medal for a lifetime of achievements, but for him it all started at his family’s dairy farm.

He was born in Calgary and his parents, Sam and Margaret Chalack, started Ultra Holsteins in 1954. It was originally a commercial dairy, and he remembers travelling to Carstairs, Alta., as a seven-year-old with his father to buy four purebred bred heifers from Acme Holsteins.

“They had one of the best herds of the day,” he said.

Chalack’s family farm is now the site of Rocky Mountain Holsteins, owned with friends and partners Doug Blair and Glenn Hockley. They raise elite Holsteins that are known throughout the dairy world.

“We are proud to have bred and owned some of the best cows in North America,” he said.

They hold a production sale at the farm every July, featuring a pancake breakfast, western hospitality and the chance to bid on some of the best from Rocky Mountain and consignors. The sales tent is packed and cattle have sold for six figures.

It has been a fast-paced career, which Chalack attributes to his decision to become a veterinarian.

He attended a one room school house in Bearspaw, west of Calgary, for three years before transferring to Cochrane. There were six people in his high school graduating class.

Enrolling at the University of Alberta opened up his world. He was suddenly in a big city and a large university with 350 people in a class. He advises all parents to push their children off the farm.

“I think it is really important that they promote two things to their kids. They can achieve whatever they want and have a great business and lifestyle in agriculture, but they should go away to go to school,” he said.

He was studying animal science but was interested in veterinary medicine. He was accepted at the University of Saskatchewan’s Western College of Veterinary Medicine during his third year at the U of A and graduated in 1975.

His first job was with Moore and Company Veterinary Clinic in Calgary, where he eventually became a partner.

“That decision to go into veterinary medicine was a watershed moment,” he said.

“Being a veterinarian has really set the stage for so much of what I have been able to experience and appreciate and achieve.”

His main interest was bovine reproduction, and he joined a group of early adopters of embryo transplant technology.

“Calgary was the epicenter of embryo transfer on the exotic breeds with big prices,” he said.

Work started at 4:30 a.m. in those early days. Cows were anesthetized and placed on their backs on a surgical table to recover embryos in a hot room.

“We thought they had to be heated to about 100 degrees for the viability of the eggs. We were sweating and the cows were under general anesthetic,” he said.

“It wasn’t necessary if you look at how it is done today. It’s all done non-surgical.”

Cows were super-ovulated and released two to 20 eggs, similar to what is achieved now. Experiments conducted by veterinarians in private practice from 1975-80 perfected the techniques of non-surgical retrieval.

Ultra Holsteins had the first registered embryo transplant bull at Holstein Canada. It was classified as excellent.

Around that time, Chalack started working with Doug Blair, a neighbour who built Western Breeders Service in Balzac, north of Calgary.

“He started with a couple of trailers and built it into a globally recognized company called Alta Genetics,” Chalack said.

It has production facilities in Wisconsin, Brazil and the Calgary region, but the head office remains at Balzac.

Chalack joined the company in 1988 and bought shares when it was publicly traded. He headed the embryo and live cattle division and eventually took over managing international markets.

“Because I was interested in reproduction, it was really a good link with Alta because we were about reproduction and the efficient management and profitability of large dairy herds,” he said.

The company had an international focus from the beginning, and Chalack was involved in teaching embryo transfer to veterinarians from the former Soviet Union. He also made numerous trips to the region, delivering cattle and providing technical support.

Chalack also spent time in China with the Canadian International Development Agency, setting up dairy farms in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Alta Genetics now exports to 80 countries, and as an international sales manager, Chalack has visited many of them, spreading his own brand of bonhomie wearing a big smile and a black cowboy hat.

“You find that people all over the world are great. They have the same needs and they love their families and they want to have good education for their kids and they want to be healthy,” he said.

“I think people need to travel. When you think global economy and you stay at home and you don’t get out and about, you are really disadvantaged.”

Chalack started to make time for volunteer activities once his career was established. He made a deal with Alta Genetics in which the company would receive half his time and the rest would be devoted to volunteering.

“I believe very much in networking. The more people you can meet, you always learn something from them,” he said.

He is an accredited Holstein judge and has evaluated cattle in 15 countries. He was a 20 year volunteer with 4-H until 2005.

He was also a long-time volunteer with the Calgary Stampede, joining the board of directors in 2005 and later elected to the executive. That put him in line for the presidency from 2009-11, a momentous time because he was included in Stampede centennial celebrations.

Chalack was also interested in governance and gained certification through the Canadian Institute of Corporate Directors, which opened up more opportunities to sit on other boards, including the Canadian Livestock Genetics Exporters Association, Horse Racing Alberta, Calgary Zoo and Alberta Ingenuity Centre for Livestock Genomics.

He is also chair of the Canadian Food Inspection Agency’s ministerial advisory board.

“All these things seemed to multiply,” he said.

“If you understand good governance, then you add value at the board table, which is really a leadership role of setting strategic direction.”

In 2010, premier Ed Stelmach and agriculture minister Jack Hayden appointed Chalack chair of the Alberta Livestock and Meat Agency.

The agency was controversial from the start. Parts of the Alberta beef sector opposed the concept of one large agency, but he saw it as a challenge.

“I had no hesitation. I saw a very fragmented industry and I saw the opportunity that an organization like ALMA with a competency based board could do.”

He believes organizations see its value now.

“I really see the mood in Alberta changing,” he said.

“What is more impactful on a national basis, people in the industry across this country truly see ALMA as a leader and a catalyst. That is very gratifying.”

Chalack has also found time to pay his education forward by joining the dean’s advisory council for the University of Calgary’s veterinary college. Students from the school have worked at Alta Genetics and at his farm.

Rocky Mountain Holsteins is still at the centre of his life. Staff manage it, but he is a regular presence to check the cows and discuss plans.

Even though he and his wife, Joanne, are grandparents to two boys, there are no plans to coast to the finish line.

He still likes to show cattle and there are more opportunities to seek and more friends to make.

“I am always looking for opportunities and I love getting up in the morning because there is so much to do. The days fly by,” he said.

He has also made friends in politics and the energy business. He is based in Alberta but believes in Canada.

“We have to encourage trade and we have to facilitate movement of products between provinces,” he said.

“I am interested in politics and the economy. I hope that Canada can continue to grow into one of the best nations in the world because we have everything here, fresh water, resources, talented people and all kinds of space.”