June is dairy month and the perfect time to highlight just a few of the many endangered breeds of dairy cattle. Like the loss of genetic plant diversity, the decline in livestock diversity also threatens the safety and security of the world food system.
Selected because of their high milk production, black and white Holsteins today make up over 90% of America’s dairy herd. But unlike most historic breeds that can thrive in poor pasture conditions, Holsteins require large amounts of feed and high levels of grain. The genetic make-up of historic breeds creates animals that are productive into their teens, compared with only six years of milk and calf production for Holsteins. Fine-tuned by nature over centuries, several historic breeds of cattle such as Canadienne, Kerry and Randall Lineback are currently listed as critically endangered by The Livestock Conservancy.
Brought to Canada between 1601-1660 and descended from Normandy and Brittany cattle, Canadienne are prized for their superior ability to produce milk on poor forage. These cattle are extremely hardy and have superior environmental adaptation. Milk production averages about 15,000 pounds per lactation, with about 4.35% butterfat and 3.7% protein.
Imported to the U.S. in 1818, Kerry cattle are descended from Celtic cattle that roamed the landscape when Caesar invaded Britain. Kerry cows are known for being robust mothers that calve easily and for making milk that more easily digests due to smaller butterfat globules. This breed’s ability to thrive in the meager environment of the remote regions of Ireland made them an important asset to poor farmers.
Likely to have originated in New England from a combination of Dutch, English and French cattle, Randall Lineback became an integral part of New England rural life. They were used for dairy, beef and oxen for several centuries. Randall Lineback genetics have been lost in the past century due to crossbreeding with Holsteins. Fewer than 150 of these animals remain.
For more information on these and other rare and endangered dairy breeds visit TLC Conservation Priority List.
The Livestock Conservancy is a clearing-house for information on livestock and genetic diversity; and the only organization in the U.S. working to conserve historic and rare breeds of livestock.