The Atlantic

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?
Source: 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 in a 1930 U.S. Department of Agriculture report. The 6,000 Red Poll cows accounted for in the 1920s have to just 524, and only 245 Milking Shorthorns today, falling from as recently as the 1970s.

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