The Fight for America's Disappearing Ancient Dairy Cows

Farmers can’t afford to save the country’s dwindling heritage breeds. But can the dairy industry afford to lose them?

A Pineywood cow
A Pineywood cow, one of the earliest breeds to come to North America with the Spaniards in the 1500s (Jeannette Beranger / The Livestock Conservancy)

Crossing the vast network of American roadways, drivers pass through fields of corn, soy, and wheat. They see power lines, roadside World’s Largests, kitschy diners—and cows. About 9 million dairy cows occupy the nation’s rural landscape, and of those, 94 percent are the familiar black-and-white Holsteins, a breed so archetypal that even the cow emoji is a Holstein. But this wasn’t always the case.

When cattle first became a part of American agriculture, New World colonists raised rugged cows of diverse stock. Some were native to North America, others brought from Europe, but all were dual- or tri-purpose breeds—good for milk, meat, and draft power. Unlike today’s cows, who are often cornfed and heavily medicated in vast indoor feeding facilities, these “heritage” cows were scrappy, able to thrive outside on unmanaged grasses. To this day, heritage cattle are naturally disease-resistant, produce offspring without human intervention, and can be milked well into their teen years. And they’re slowly going extinct.

Over the past century, the rise of the Holstein cow has decimated many native and heritage breeds. Fewer than 4,000 Guernsey cattle were registered last year, down from the 44,000 tallied in a 1930 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The 6,000 Red Poll cows accounted for in the 1920s have dropped to just 524, and only 245 registered Milking Shorthorns remain today, falling from several thousand as recently as the 1970s.

A small group of conservationists are scrambling to keep these Landrace cattle around, but they’re up against a dairy industry dependent on high-output Holsteins, not to mention thousands of farmers whose livelihoods hang in the balance. Most commercial dairy farms are in no position to take a chance on ancient breeds as they fend off volatile milk prices and decreased demand. But if the last of the nation’s heritage cows disappear, it might be the dairy industry that suffers most.

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Holsteins came to the United States from Holland in the late 1800s, nearly four centuries after the earliest known appearance of American heritage cattle. Introduced in Massachusetts in 1852, Holsteins were coveted for their distinctive spotted markings and the astonishing volume of milk they could produce. They left other breeds in the dust at a time when demand for liquid milk was steadily rising due to pasteurization and refrigeration. Artificial insemination became commonplace around this time, too, which enabled targeted Holstein breeding.

Over the decades, farmers across America, under pressure to meet the needs of a rapidly growing population, crossbred heritage cattle with the impressive Holsteins to increase production. Other heritage cows were lost in the 1980s, slaughtered for beef in a Department of Agriculture herd reduction aimed at raising milk prices.

A green screen
The SVF Foundation, a Rhode Island-based organization that preserves rare livestock, is one institution performing the controversial practice of cryopreservation to stockpile heritage-cow genes. (Sarah Bowley)

“We operate in an economic model that pushes to maximize output,” says Sam Frank, a cheesemaker researching heritage breeds. “That’s why your typical conventional dairy operation normally involves hundreds, if not thousands, of high-yielding Holstein cows that spend all their lives chained to a stall eating grain and pumping out milk.”

Frank is part of a cohort of dairy-industry advocates fighting to keep rare breeds on American farms. He and these other die-hards paint a dire picture of a world without the cows, though they all have different reasons for bearing the heritage cross. The most pressing is what the loss of this genetic diversity could mean for a warming planet.

As the world’s population continues to balloon and environmental changes endanger global food supplies, resilient cows offer numerous advantages. Take the heat-tolerant Pineywood breed, one of the earliest breeds to come to the United States with the Spaniards in the 1500s. Pineywoods adapted to the American southeast and are able to thrive in extremely hot conditions, a beneficial trait to preserve amid rising temperatures. Most heritage breeds are also disease-resistant—useful in the event of widespread epidemics—and have excellent foraging abilities, which means they could survive on grass should something happen to corn crops.

Other conservation campaigns have been motivated less by environmentalism than by the desire to preserve history and tradition. In the 1970s, Vermont’s Randall cattle got down to a single herd when the farmer Everett Randall passed away. His family, ill-equipped to care for them, planned to disperse the remaining 15 cows. But when the Tennessee farmer Cynthia Creech got word of their plight in Small Farmer’s Journal, she was so moved that she researched the breed, bought all the animals, then restored them to health on her farm before moving herself and the cattle back to their hometown in Vermont.

The ranks of these conservationists are diverse, including activists like Frank, breeding associations across the United States and Canada, research facilities, and an organization called the Livestock Conservancy, which was created in the 1970s when a few historians had trouble locating an American Milking Devon cow for a commemorative display in Massachusetts. The conservancy, based in North Carolina, protects heritage cows by tracking their status and conducting rare-breed rescues to retrieve dwindling herds in areas threatened by predators or development. The breed associations focus on connecting what few heritage farmers are left. The American Milking Devon Cattle Association, for instance, maintains a bank of semen, which they sell to heritage breeders.

Cryopreservation, embryo transfer, and semen banks are tempting ways to grow these breeds quickly, but the practices are controversial within the heritage community for the threat they pose to gene pools that are already very limited. Inbreeding isn’t much better than shrinking biodiversity, so conservationists have to strike a balance. “If the agricultural landscape becomes more diversified, it will be less susceptible to possible collapse—like in the example of the Irish Potato Famine,” says Ryan Walker, the marketing and communications manager for the Livestock Conservancy.

Walker’s reference to Ireland’s dependence on a potato strain that was hit by blight in the mid-1800s is one that conservationists raise often. “Heritage breeds are our insurance policy against this type of collapse,” he says.

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Despite these concerns about extinction, struggling dairy farmers often don’t have the time or resources to consider breeding cows who produce less milk than Holsteins. Milk prices have been in a slump for years, leaving commodity dairy farms on tight budgets with razor-thin margins. Many farmers take second jobs.

“Farmers face the same bills the rest of us do, with food, housing, health care, children going to school,” says Drew Conroy, a professor and farmer who used to head up the American Milking Devon Cattle Association, an organization of Devon breeders located throughout New England. Conroy owns Devons, but says that without his teaching job, he wouldn’t be able to make a living off of the cows alone. For the full-time Holstein farmers producing the bulk of the U.S. milk supply, there is even less room for experimentation with rare breeds.

Conceivably, there are ways around this. The European Union, for instance, subsidizes heritage-cattle husbandry as part of an effort to protect Europe’s considerably older cultural history. In Sam Frank’s research abroad, he met a farmer in Sicily getting 400 euros per cow per year, and another in Ireland getting 200 euros. The U.S. government isn’t ignoring breed preservation—in 1999, the USDA’s Center for Agricultural Resources Research in Fort Collins, Colorado, partnered with the Livestock Conservancy to study livestock security and adaptability to climate change. But while this research is valuable, it doesn’t incentivize risky breeding for the average American dairy farmer.

A more lucrative approach for farmers, conservationists hope, might be a ramped-up marketing push akin to the campaign of the heirloom tomato, tapping into the farm-to-table ethos that has come to dominate the American grocery store. “Encouraging consumers to buy heritage-breed products increases demand and encourages farmers to breed more,” says Walker. “We always say, ‘you have to eat them to save them.’”

American Milking Devon cows
The American Milking Devon, a breed brought to North America in the 17th century (Jeannette Beranger / The Livestock Conservancy)

Many heritage pork products are already on shelves across the United States, and heritage dairy has begun cropping up as well. But using the “heritage” stamp as a branding tool has its drawbacks. With the word itself able to bring in higher profits, the market is vulnerable to infiltrators trying to sell less-than-heritage products. Farmers are again crossbreeding Holsteins and heritage cattle, not just to increase output this time, but to gain access to the coveted heritage moniker—a practice that purists like Frank and the Randall Cattle Registry folks are staunchly against.

Vermont’s Sweet Rowen Farm has adopted this practice, blending Randalls with higher-producing breeds to create what they’re calling “Vermont Heritage Linebacks.” Katt Tolman, the farm’s herd manager, is unfazed by criticism that her mixed herd is bad for the heritage movement. “I personally don’t see the benefit of keeping any breed or race ‘pure.’ Nature is not stagnant or rigidly segregated,” she says. “It seems to me that the rare-breed associations are hurting their own cause by being so rigidly exclusive. If rare breeds are not allowed to be fluid and adaptive to current agricultural needs, they will only be the playthings of the rich and idle.”

Whether or not conservationists agree with these methods, younger farms like Sweet Rowen might be the most likely stewards of heritage breeds. They represent a generation of farmers less invested in the old commodity system, better equipped to take a chance on risky branding. “Converting to heritage requires a different husbandry approach, so in some ways it’s easier for farmers to start from scratch,” says Walker.

If young farmers raise heritage breeds with the intent to preserve them, they could shepherd at-risk cows away from direct competition with Holsteins and steer them toward organic consumers, who are often more willing to spend extra on environmentally minded products. But there’s still a chance that these young, experimental farmers will lean on crossbreeding to increase volume—in which case pure heritage populations could continue to drop, or disappear.

If new farmers do find success, though, buoyed by a hip label and unfettered by decades of investment, longtime Holstein farmers get stuck with the short end of the marketing stick. “We tend to blame the farmer for the practices that the free market asks/demands of them,” Richard McCarthy, the executive director of the nonprofit Slow Food U.S.A., said in an email. “Holsteins are marvelous, beautiful creatures who produce volume. If volume/price is the only concern, then they win. If we as consumers and as a society start to value other attributes, other breeds can join in the winnings.”