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The dairy legacy that Marvin Nunes spent a lifetime building went on the auction block Wednesday, with bidders watching from around the U.S. and Canada.

Nunes' herd of nearly 600 registered Holsteins, renowned for their pedigrees and milk production, were sold off at his Ocean View Farms northwest of Santa Rosa on Mark West Station Road.

Those who wanted to see the cows firsthand watched from a large white pavilion, while online bidders could stay home and click to offer up to $15,0000 for one of the prized animals.

Despite the high bids and national interest, the auction was for many a sign of the ongoing difficulties in California's dairy industry.

Many dairies are losing money because of high feed costs, farmers said. A few North Bay dairies have closed in recent months, and dairymen fear more could follow.

"It's a losing battle," said Barbara Stevens, Nunes' partner of 16 years.

She said Nunes, who is 76, didn't feel like speaking publicly on a day in which he was leaving behind a lifetime in the dairy business.

The 177-acre farm that Nunes has owned for four decades is on the market for $6.95 million. The land, nestled between the Charles M. Schulz-Sonoma County Airport and the Russian River, is advertised online as a site for vineyards that would sit "among some of the region's most prominent growers and wineries."

The auction Wednesday was a reminder that Sonoma County has been cow country for generations, and that until 1987 milk reigned over wine grapes as the top farm crop.

Five hours after the bidding began, more than 120 people still were gathered in or near the pavilion.

Bidders were signed up from as far away as Wisconsin and New York. And some of the animals were expected to be shipped to Canada.

An online auction for dairy cows is unusual in Sonoma County, but the breeding stock known as Ocean View being offered by Nunes is highly coveted.

"This is probably one of the elite herds in the nation," said Santa Rosa dairyman Doug Beretta, a former president of the Sonoma County Farm Bureau.

Ocean View boasts nine cows that in their lifetimes produced more than 300,000 pounds of milk. That performance is akin to that of a hall-of-fame athlete, said Horace Backus, a soft-spoken cowman from Syracuse, N.Y., who has been working with cattle for seven decades and was part of the auction team.

By 3 p.m., the auction had sold about 300 cows, including seven for more than $10,000 each. Two of those cows fetched more than $15,000.

In contrast, a typical dairy cow can be purchased for $1,700 to $1,900, said Backus.

Ocean View Farms takes its name from the days when Nunes operated a farm near other relatives not far from the Point Reyes lighthouse. He moved to his current farm about 40 years ago.

What set Nunes apart was his knack for recognizing good stock and his emphasis on improving his herd through his top cows, or the maternal line.

"The bull can't do it all," said Backus.

The auction occurred at a time when the outlook for the state's dairy farmers remains bleak.

They were hard hit when milk prices plummeted during the economic downturn. In the last four years, the number of dairies in California has dropped by 20 percent to around 1,600, said Michael Marsh, chief executive for Western United Dairymen in Modesto.

Sonoma and Marin counties have about 100 dairies combined. A half century ago the two counties had about 400 dairies.

Many dairy farmers are still "very economically fragile" from the recession, Marsh said. With today's high feed costs, "they're losing money right now pretty rapidly."

Joey Mendoza, Nunes' cousin and a retired Point Reyes dairyman, acknowledged it was hard Wednesday to consider that Ocean View wouldn't continue.

"He put everything into this, his heart and soul," Mendoza said. "His whole life."

You can reach Staff Writer Robert Digitale at 521-5285 or robert.digitale@pressdemocrat.com