Breeds of Grass-based Dairy Cattle
Breeds of Grass-based Dairy Cattle
There are a lot of different breeds of cattle that are suitable for the grass-based dairy model, there are also some that are not. Since we are talking about dairy I think we can eliminate all the beef breeds although the dual-purpose cattle will work very well. Many of the ‘heritage’ breeds although the true dual-purpose cattle will work very well. Many of the ‘heritage’ breeds are exceptional in seasonal grass dairies because that is what they were designed for in the first place. Since I don’t believe a person ought to talk about what they do not know, I will only refer to the breeds of cattle that we have.
If alfalfa is the ‘Queen of the Forages’ then the Jersey must be the Queen of the ‘Grass Cows’. We all own a few of them and they are the type of a cow that we all refer to. “She was as short as a Jersey…..She gives more than a Jersey….She’s a Jersey-Shorthorn cross…..”. In the past twenty years I have seen a distributing trend within the Jersey breed: they are becoming taller, they are making more milk with less components, their attitude is deteriorating, and difficult births are on the rise. This trend is something that we as dairy farmers cannot afford to continue, we must reverse course or the Jersey we knew will become nothing more than a brown-skinned Holstein. The improvement in the jerseys to come from Jersey people’, not from someone on the outside like me.
The milking Devon came to this country from Devonshire, England at the time of the Pilgrims. Like other breeds they were dual and triple purpose cattle ie: milk, meat, and draft. Devon oxen fueled westward expansion and agriculture development far more than did the workhorses of their day. The American cattle barons of the eighteenth century used Devon’s to upgrade and improve native cattle from Gulf Coast, up the Mississippi and Ohio valleys into the wilderness areas Illinois and Michigan. The advent of modern agriculture with it’s gasoline engines and single-purpose dairy cattle put an end to the cattle like the Devon’s.
Devon has been gaining popularity, the true milking Devon has almost been lost . In 2005 there were only sixty new heifers registered with the breed association. There are a few herds left in the New England area but mostly to supply the oxen market. Only a handful of Milking Devon’s are actually milked although they fit well in a seasonal program and produce milk with up to 8% fat and 5% protein. Milking Devon’s are a deep rich red color from which they get the nick name Red Ruby’s, only about 48 inches tall at the hip, with spreading upswept horns. They are a truly unique and timeless breed that has as much to offer today as it did four hundred years ago.
Twenty-five hundred years ago some Celtic chieftain decided to move his entire tribe to a distance green island which came to be known years later as Ireland. This was a permanent move for the Celts and so they brought all their worldly goods with them including their short, black, horned cattle. Kerry cattle are the first breed of cattle to be developed specifically for dairy purposes and are the decedents of these original Centric cattle. At one time there were quite a few Kerrys around but today there are less than five hundred in all of North America.
Kerrys were developed to live on the rugged pasturelands of Ireland where the only shelter was on the backside of a rock, and the only feed was what was at your feet. For centuries they have been selected and refined by extreme conditions, the result being a cow that produces a calf every year, delivering unassisted, producing adequate milk for ten or twelve lactations, breeding back quickly, maintaining body condition, all on grass alone. Kerrys cows rarely if ever get up to one thousand pounds and they ARE grass-based seasonal dairy cattle.
Most Kerrys in North America live in small isolated herds of ten or less and there is considerable inbreeding being practiced, and while this ‘fixes’ good and bad trait alike, with careful selection and strict culling proponents bulls can be found or developed rather quickly. The big advantage with Kerrys is that they will ‘shorten up’ tall cattle, live well into their teens, and thrive without grains.
The dual-purpose Milking Shorthorn cow built the dairy industry in America and was pushed out of limelight by single-purpose cows like the Holstein and the Jersey. After many years of neglect the breed has almost completely spilt with the milk side being continuously 30,000 lbs of milk at a 3.3% fat and a 2.9% protein on concrete and corn and dead by her fifth birthday! Sounds like an awful lot like Holstien to me.
Our Shorthorns are short, 50 to 52” at the hip, deep and wide, with lots of capacity and the proper structure for years and years of production. We are not the shorthorn but more the niche, grass-based, old world, dual-purpose shorthorn. Our oldest cow will deliver her eleventh calf on April 9th, still going strong on all four quarters.
Just as they built the industry in the beginning these old-style Shorthorns can help to build the grass-based dairies.
New Zealand Fresian
In the late 1940’s my grandparents moved to this area and established a herd of milking cows. There were several small dairies locally and everything from Arshires to Shorthorns were represented. My Granddad’s herd had the highest percentage of butterfat in the area…..they were Holsteins.
For the last sixty years the American Holstein has chased fluid milk while the New Zealand Fresian has been in pursuit of fertility, longevity, and components. It is not uncommon to find Fresian bulls who’s daughters produce 5% fat and 4% protein, for ten or more lactations. The bull we are currently using is plus 10.2% fertility, and his dam has so far recorded seven lactations at 5.5 fat and 4.0%.
‘Kiwi’ dairy farmers are able to produce milk and ship it here for less than most of us spend to make it. Their ability to do so rests in the fact that they got in tune with the natural rhythm of good cows on good grass. If you have a hard time stepping away from a black and white cow then the Fresians may be cattle for you. The use of Fresian bulls will increase components, fertility and longevity while decreasing overall size, calving difficulty, and the need for corn.