In 2014, Wisconsin had 1,270,000 milk cows, surpassed only by California with 1,781,000. New York came in a distant third with 615,000 (USDA). Typically, if you ask someone to draw a cow, they will draw a boxy horse-like creature with large black spots on a white background. Holsteins are indeed the most popular dairy cow in the US, and not surprisingly, they produce the most milk of all cow breeds. The origins of the Holstein are unknown, but historical records mention black and white cattle existing in the northern Netherlands before the 17th century (Pukite). The first US imports, by Dutch settlers in New York, were simply called “Dutch” cattle (Pukite). They came to be called Holstein-Friesian and eventually, just Holstein.
Yet, there seem to be a lot of other cow breeds out there, brown, red, spotted and plain. Why would a dairy man choose any other cow but the most productive Holstein? To learn more on this subject, I turned to a local expert, Dr. Guy Jodarski, supervising veterinarian for CROPP Cooperative. Dr. Guy reviewed the top most popular dairy breeds with me based on the family farms that make up CROPP. First off, he estimates that Holsteins do make up about 50% of the cows. That said, farmers tend to cross-breed to select for advantageous traits in multiple breeds.
After passing the organic dairy, I have to concentrate to get myself up the next hill, counting the pedals to the top. Cruising on, I see a large contoured, field to my left, of corn and soybeans. There is a farm on my right with a sign for Angus beef cattle, but there are no cattle in sight. I slow and look both ways before crossing Country Y. Soon I bike by another pasture, this time startling a group of light brown cows who run with me for a few delightful seconds. Then, I take a left on Miller Road which will lead me to WI-14 and the path back home.
As a consumer relations associate for CROPP, I’ve noticed a rise in questions from consumers concerning the type of breed producing their milk. There has been some debate around A1 versus A2 milk. A1 and A2 refer to the type of beta-casein protein found in the milk. The theory is that A2 milk is more digestible and that A1 milk can even be harmful. However, there have not yet been enough studies looking into this. That said, the word has spread and there is even a company in New Zealand making and marketing A2- only milk.
It has been found that Holsteins produce mostly A1 milk, while breeds like the Jersey and Guernsey are more likely to produce A2 milk. Dr. Guy has also observed a rising interest in this debate amongst the Organic Valley farmers, and some farmers are actually testing their cows for A2 and selecting for it. Some are using genetics of the Friesian (the breed that was once mixed with Holsteins) to increase A2 in their herd.
Jerseys and Friesians are also more popular among Organic Valley farmers pursuing the 100% grass fed (no grain!) diet. Other breeds that these farmers experiment with to increase good grazing traits include the Normandy, the Lineback and the Fleckvieh, a German breed. Over the years, Dr. Guy has noticed that the Holsteins on these farms are different from the Holsteins found on conventional farms which are bred to respond well to grain. Holsteins found on Organic Valley farms have been selected for pasture-based farming and are actually good for grazing. They may not be as tall as conventional Holsteins, but have a big body and chest and are able to eat more forage.
Becky and Tucker Gretebeck care for a herd on their family farm in Cashton that produces milk for Organic Valley Grassmilk products. According to Becky, their herd was initially heavily Holsteins. They found that the feet and legs of Holsteins did not hold up well when faced with more traveling to graze, especially over gravel paths. To make sturdier cows, they tried cross-breeding with Norwegian Red, Shorthorn, Normandy, Montbéliarde, and dabbled in Fleckvieh. The Shorthorn crosses seem to be the most productive for them.
On the Hass family farm located close to CROPP headquarters, they have about 80 cows that are mainly Jersey. According to Al Hass, they’ve done a lot of cross-breeding to increase the protein and butterfat in their milk which ultimately leads to a higher pay price. The cross breeds they’ve used include the Short Horn, Ayrshire, Montbéliarde, and Swedish Red. The Hasses did try the 100% grass fed diet for a while, but found they were not getting the production they wanted. They were also challenged by limited acreage for pasture and feed.
Dr. Guy estimates that about half of breeding is with a bull and half is through Artificial Insemination (A.I.). Farmers may use A.I. and then “clean up” with a bull to make sure no one gets. Biking up the hill into Westby at the end of my route, I again come across buildings that are part of the Accelerated Genetics complex. This cooperative was first formed in 1941 by 120 farmers in Vernon County. Today, it has become one of the leading A.I. companies in the world and serves customers in over 90 countries. They offer a variety of products to aid in breeding and healthcare of beef and dairy cattle (http://www.thecattlesite.com).
Back home, I dream of milking my own brown cow, but then it seems best left up to the farmers. This concludes our cow adventure, folks. I hope you learned as much as I did on this ride!
Dr. Guy Jodarski – Supervising Veterinarian at CROPP
Becky Gretebeck – Product Development Manager at CROPP
Al Hass – West Central Division Pool Manager at CROPP