Montana is considered a fluid milk state, which means that one of the primary goals for dairy farmers is to breed cows that produce a lot of milk without much regard for components. Across the state, the vast representation of cows are of the black and white variety, Holsteins that is.
We only know of a handful of farmers that milk Jerseys or Jersey crosses, and one farmer that milks Brown Swiss. We have nothing against Holsteins, but Montana Holsteins are bred to thrive in a free stall barn and for maximum production, which does not necessarily make them an ideal candidate for our grazing operation. This means finding stock within any sort of reasonable distance (which for Montana is measured in hours, not in miles) has become one of our greatest challenges.
The cows we have right now are a motley assortment: we found Twister (¾ Jersey, ¼ Holstein) and Beignet (Jersey) on Craigslist, while the two Holstein steers and Cascabel (½ Jersey, ½ Holstein) came from two different dairy farmers Laura met through her thesis work. Every now and then another heifer or cow will come up on Craigslist, but we think that will no longer be the best option for us as we start to look for purebred animals with known lineages.
Cascabel is our only heifer whose history we know – specifically her mother and grandmother’s production, health, and longevity – so we know what to expect from her. The other two we just are not sure. Beignet came from a cow that was from a production dairy in Oregon. Twister was on a cow with three other calves and when we got her she was pretty undernourished and needed a lot of TLC before she started growing. Because we both want a herd of solid, high quality animals, we have changed our purchasing goals and are now planning on going further afield to build our herd. By no means do we regret purchasing Twister and Beignet, who are growing up to be sweet, well-built animals who are super grazers.
As we buy additional animals, we will be looking for cows and heifers that are purebred Jersey. In our pasture management system, we need cows that will be active grazers even during the heat of day, calve easily, and produce milk with high levels of butterfat and protein. We are both really interested in breeding high-quality, pasture appropriate animals and so we are learning more about New Zealand genetics, known for their focus on pasture performance and high-component milk.
Working on the dairies in Vermont, where all the cows were registered and their lineages well-understood, the impact of good breeding choices was clear. The cows lived long, productive lives, had excellent conformation, made lots of milk, and had calves that could be sold for additional income. Laura thinks that a herd of Jerseys grazing in a green field is quite a lovely sight to behold.
At the same time we want to breed show-quality Jerseys, we are interested in bringing in two breeds that are not well-known on this side of the country.
Connie is enamored with Normandes, a French breed well-known for their rich milk and performance on pasture. We visited a dairy in Massachusetts that used Normandes and even with the calves nursing on the cows, the girls were producing upwards of 40 pounds of milk a day, which is quite impressive. The Normandes are a little funny looking in a way that is very endearing, and we think they would do really well in Montana.
Laura is determined to start a small, pure bred herd of Canadiennes, the only dairy breed developed in North America and specifically suited to grazing in the harsh, cold weather of Quebec. Canadiennes are a rare breed on the critical list for the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy with less than 500 pure animals in all of North America. The closest Normande herds are in Wisconsin, while there are a handful of Canadiennes in New England – a cow collecting road trip might be in order.
Until next time, the girls of the Golden Yoke.
Thanks to Stonyfield, Profits for the Planet, for funding the 2013 Bootstrap blog series.