My husband and I originally bought Kerry cattle for an integrated dairy production project that involved two different family farms. The plan was that our neighbors would keep them and milk them along with their dairy cows on their farm, while my husband and I would raise the heifers and feed out the steers for beef on our farm.
The plan didn’t work because the Kerries weren’t earning their keep due to low milk production. The Kerries were producing less than 1 ½ gallons of milk a day. Lately I have been trying to figure out what practical place Kerry cows might have in 21st century America.
Kerry cattle are an extremely rare heritage breed of dairy cattle native to Ireland.
They are long-lived and have genetics that are unique and are unlike that of modern U.S. dairy cattle. Kerry cows most often produce milk with A2 type of β-casein which is a very desirable trait in some milking herds.The A1/A2 controversy has become a topic of interest and specialty marketing in the dairy industry and in alternative health circles.
When a Kerry bull is crossed onto a Holstein cow or heifer the resulting offspring is solid black. Due to that fact alone the bull calves command higher prices at the sale barn. With our herd we’ve noticed a distinct hardiness and liveliness in any Kerry cross calf.
Kerry bulls are my service choice for easy trouble free calving for a first time heifer. I have found the most successful Kerry crosses so far to have been Kerry X Jersey; Kerry X Holstein and my favorite has been Kerry X Simmental.
Kerry cows like their cousins Dexters, are low milk producers compared to modern dairy breeds. But they are easy keepers, do quite well on pasture and can make a good family cow for a small family if you can find one.
- Kerry cattle are small but are not dwarfs.They are not nearly as small as many Dexters. The larger size is an advantage for those who do not have a reliable means to sell direct to consumers and must sell feeders or finished beef through traditional livestock markets.
- Excellent feed efficiency. Kerry Cattle eat about 25%-30% as much feed as a Holstein and maybe 50% -70% as much feed as a modern commercial Angus.
- Kerry cattle are tame and easily managed if handled right.
- In crossing with other breeds, the sold black color is very dominant. Black cattle can bring a premium in traditional livestock markets of 12%-30% over other colors of cattle.
- Extreme longevity. There are verified instances of 20 year old Kerry cows having calves
- Their primitive DNA may provide some unique disease immunity. There was initial research in Britain that no Dexter or Kerry cow was ever slaughtered for BSE. But this was never fully researched.
- Beef flavor was traditionally well regarded. I find it to be a much better flavor than Dexter beef but not quite as good as Hereford of Angus. If slaughter at 24 months the meat is fine grained and slightly marbled.
- Small birth weights. A smaller calf means less calving assistance by the herdsman in order for a calf to be born.
- High rates of A2 beta casein. A2 beta casein is a source of controversy at present in some dairy circles. Most diary cattle in the US do not carry the gene for A2 beta casein.
- Because of their low milk production Kerry cattle, like Dexters, might have a place as a family cow on the right homestead.
- Kerry cattle have only a very distant relationship to other breeds of cattle. This maximizes the advantage of heterosis in crossing with more mainstream breeds.
- Most Kerry cattle in North American today come from one single importation from Ireland to Canada. The gene pool in North America is very limited. All Kerry cattle in North America are closely related.
- From at least 1919 onward, the majority of Kerry breeders in Ireland and England were aristocrats. The landed gentry kept Kerries as prestigious estate cows. Kerry cattle have not really been bred for milk production or improvement for at least 90 years. This is a serious problem today, as most North American Kerry cattle breeders are keeping them for their rarity or heritage, and not for milk production.
- Our direct experience with milk production was an abysmal 12 pounds per day (that’s less than two gallons a day) over a 180 day lactation. Modern dairy cows have a lactation of at least 305 days. Even for many home dairies, or people keeping a single family cow, this is just not enough milk. It is milk enough for a calf and maybe a half gallon a day for the table or kitchen. Certainly not enough milk to make getting pooped on and occasionally kicked worthwhile.
- Kerry cattle are a genetic dead end. There is no consistency of owner expectations about the future niche of these cows.
- There is not enough modern data on crossbred performance. Crossbred performance is the heart of modern day beef production and becoming common in dairy cattle breeding. Many of the 100 year old reports of crossbreeding Kerry outcomes are useless. This is because every other breed of cattle crossed onto a Kerry has changed since then.