Shannon Rice-Nichols of Heamour Farm in Hadley, MA (formerly Madison, NY) described the importance of preserving heritage dairy cattle at a lecture hosted by the Swiss Village Foundation in Newport, RI. She discussed the importance of heritage dairy breeds to biodiversity and the challenges of making critically endangered breeds relevant and cost effective in modern farming. Afterwards, nearly 40 participants enjoyed tasting farmstead cheeses made from specific heritage dairy breeds.
Historians can trace human migration across Europe by looking at the genetic lines of their livestock. Over time, cattle were selected based on the suitability of their milk for making butter, hard or soft cheeses or for feeding to invalids or small children. Most cheese and butterfat yields are significantly better than those of modern Holsteins. Regional cheeses and butters were developed and earned a loyal following.
Due to changes in the dairy industry after World War II, some heritage cattle breeds were selected for beef production and their strong dairy production characteristics have nearly been lost. Shannon said registered numbers are up for some of these endangered and threatened breeds; careful breeding programs must focus on production and dairy type are necessary to ensure use and function as well as genetic diversity.
A national symbol of Irish heritage, this breed is over 1,000 years old. Traditionally, most of these animals were on estate farms across New England, Pennsylvania and in isolated pockets of Irish settlement across the country. Today they are in concentrated in NY and New England as well as Virginia and Kansas. Considered among the best “family cows,” Kerry cows produce milk on forage-based diets. Slow growing and long-lived, these cows can calve for 15 years or more. Cows can weigh 800 to 1,000 pounds; bulls can weigh 1,300 pounds.
The Kerry cattle are known as the world’s first true dairy cow with milk production of 7,700 to 9,900 pounds per year. Kerry cows’ milk is well-suited for long-aged cheeses. Delicious Gubeen cheese is world famous.
Dedicated breeders work to expand the numbers of purebred, registered Kerry Cattle. The world’s few remaining animals are direct descendants of Kerry Cattle imported into Canada during the 1970's.
Learn more about the American Kerry Cattle Society here or find them on Facebook.
These are economical dual-purpose animals offering great milk and lean beef. According to the American Dexter Cattle Association, Dexters are “the perfect old-fashioned family cow.”
Dexters are native to southern Ireland where they forage in the mountains. Dexters were brought to America between 1905 and 1915. These cattle handle hot or cold climates, even at high altitudes, thriving outdoors year-round with a simple windbreak or shelter.
Dexter milking cows can produce more milk for their weight than any other breed. While milk volume is less than many other breeds, Dexters offer 4 to 5% butterfat in1 to 3 gallons daily. Yields of cream can be up to a quart per gallon. The cream can be skimmed for butter or ice cream.
At three years, typical bulls are 1000 pounds and cows, 750 pounds. Coloring can be black, red or dun; they can be horned or polled. Beef animals mature in 18 to 24 months and offer small cuts of dark red, lean meat, graded choice, with little waste. Typical dress out is 50 to 60 %.
Nearly 400 years old, this "all-purpose" breed was popular across New England. Their distinctive white stripes (top and bottom) have been a common breed attribute since in the late 1600s. These cattle offer rich milk, meat and work as draft animals. Their milk is especially good for making soft cheeses like camembert and yogurt. The yogurt holds it texture well.
Listed as "critically endangered" by the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC), this breed was named Vermont's first "State Heritage Breed. Learn about the Randall Lineback Breed Association here and the Randal Cattle Registry here.
These Canadian cattle are also known as “Black Jersey,” “Black Canadian” or “French Canadian.” The dark-colored breed is unique to Canada with origins in Normandy, France in the early 1600s. They were blended with additional animals from Brittany and Gascony. This medium-sized, breed is the only dairy breed developed in North American. Fertility is high and the breed is suited to harsh weather conditions. They thrive under intensive pasture management systems.
Canadienne is an efficient milk producer noted for butterfat and protein yields and excellent for cheese making. In 2007, Laiterie Charlevoix, a small dairy operation in Quebec, released an artisanal cheese made with Canadienne milk called “Le 1608.” The semi-soft, trappist-style, pale yellow cheese has a sharp orange rind.
There are about 100 registered animals with good genetic diversity. Learn about the Société des Eleveurs de Bovins Canadiens here.
Many people confuse these critically-endangered dairy cows with Belted Galloways raised for pastured beef. Native to Holland, these black and white or red and white cattle are long-lived and excellent breeders, capable of calving well beyond their teen years.
The Dutch Belted cows’ milk has small fat globules making it easily digestible. Historical references show that hospitals requested this milk for patients and children with digestive troubles. This milk is also excellent for making butter and cheese. With good pasture management, purebred Dutch Belted cows produce 6,000 to 8,000 pounds. When blended with Holsteins, these upgraded cows can produce as much as 16,000 pounds of milk in a 305-day lactation period.
Often confused with Red Devons, but without horns, Red Poll cattle are another dual-purpose breed. They are descended from the extinct Norfolk beef and Suffolk dairy cattle breeds of England arriving in America in the early 1800s and. Long-lived and gentle, they thrive in rotational grazing systems. Red Polls are medium-sized; cows can weigh 1,200 pounds and bulls 1,800 pounds. In the 1950s and 1960s, American breeders used Red Polls to increase hybrid vigor in commercial beef herds.
Traditionally milked in the Mid-Atlantic States and Oklahoma, Red Polls produce 10,000 pounds of milk per year as teenagers. Their milk is high in protein and butterfat, making it great for cheese making.
Learn more about the American Red Poll Association here.
Often called Golden Guernsey, these docile cattle are not related to Jerseys. The breed is believed to be over 1,000 years old. They originated on a small island in the English Channel.
Guernsey cows make golden-colored milk with very high fat. Their milk is often measured in butter and cheese yield rather than in typical fluid weight. This milk makes excellent butter, cheese and ice cream. Cows can produce 15,000 pounds of milk, with 650 pounds of butterfat and 500 pounds of protein.
Learn more about the American Guernsey Association here.
Heritage breeders gather regionally to learn from one another. View a talk given by Tim Baumgartner called “Analyzing and Improving Your Herd” here.
For over a decade, Shannon Rice-Nichols and her husband have run a certified organic dairy and small-scale processing plant making artisanal cheeses with heritage dairy cattle. Today, she raises black Kerry cattle and white Saanen goats while coordinating national conservation efforts for the Kerry cattle breed. There were 58 animals when she started her project eight years ago. Numbers are now closer to 100 head. Shannon works with anyone interested in dairy production in heritage breeds on improving the production outlook for seven other heritage dairy breeds and to match their milk to suitable dairy products. For more information, email Shannon.
SVF has worked towards preserving almost all of these rare heritage breeds of cattle. Learn more about Swiss Village Foundation’s conservation efforts at svffoundation.org, email Sarah Bowley or call (401) 848-7229. The SVF Lecture Series features topics pertaining to local farming systems, sustainable agriculture and conservation. The free lecture series is open to everyone at Swiss Village Foundation, 152 Harrison Avenue in Newport, RI.
A similar story ran in the February 18, 2013 New England edition of Country Folks.