Thursday, February 13, 2014

Curs and Kerry Cows

Granny Miller (AKA my lovely wife who puts up with me and my dogs) snapped this picture of my young Cur-dog at ten months old.
Anyone who is a part of the tree dog world knows a bit about Curs. "Cur" means something derogatory in mainstream English, but in local dialects or idioms, means something different (I cringe whenever I watch Tombstone, and Wyatt Earp calls the Clantons "Curs"). To me a Cur is a specific  type of farm and hunting dog. There are several families of True Curs; Leopards, Catahoulas, blackmouths, and Mountain.  They are NOT Mongrels, but possible also not "breeds" in the outmoded Victorian sense of breed purity. The idea of the Cur as a distinct type of dog goes back at least to Thomas Bewicks natural history in  1790.  In the backwoods of the Appalachians and American South, Curs were bred for pure performance and "breeds" emerged around families. Between the name "cur" and the fact that only country people were breeding them, curs escaped the  nonsense that city folk began in the late 1800's with dog shows and breed "purity" (with undeniable roots in human racism and eugenics) that have now culminated in the genetic shipwreck that is the AKC.

That does not mean that cur-dogs were or are bred without direction.  I never breed dogs, but have owned 7 curs from different lines. The breeders I know, hunt hard and cull hard when they need to. The result are healthy dogs with good temperament that can herd, tree game, babysit children, and even flush birds. Family lines of curs are now pretty stable. I owned two Ladner Blackmouth Curs in the 1990's, and they have very different appearance and character from Mountain Curs. However, if an outcross is needed for some characteristic, the hunting dog registries have a generic Treeing Cur option.  The National  Treeing Cur Association (Of which I am a proud member)  works with all three registries to register dogs. The Association is mostly the dedication of two generations of one great family.  In all, the Cur Dog world is a good balance between maintaining pure type to lessen the genetic dice role, while allowing for optional out-crosses to maintain health and some hybrid vigor.

I mention this because I am dealing with a genetic bottleneck with our Kerry cows. We started with a bull and five cows, which was possibly 5 percent of the known national herd in 2012. After discovering their poor milk production rates, and the fact that most cheese customers don't care a whit about breed conservation,  We sold two cows to the nice folks at the Swiss Village Foundation for conservation a year ago. I now have a nice but ancient cow (born in 2001), a somewhat skittish 2 year old cow, and a two month old heifer. My young friend Adam Dean owns a six month old heifer as payment for  the trouble these few cows have caused both our families. I own two crossbred Kerry heifers and Adam has a pile of them, thanks to LTR Kody.

I debate with myself whether to keep messing with these few animals. Registration is kind of boogered up. I found out yesterday that one of my cows had a different sire than previously thought. The Irish  Kerry Cattle Society is both death on out-crossing as a means to upgrading and will not presently register ANY American Cattle. A large herd of Kerry cattle  in Virginia was scattered to the winds last year. A large herd in New York shifted to beef production . Semen importation from Ireland is currently legally impossible and the selection of US bulls more or less goes back to the same 4 or 5 lines. Most Kerry owners are in New England, and the breed is removed both geographically and ideologically from the mainstream dairy farming world. By my guess, there are now fewer cows in large herds than two years ago, so conservation breeding will be a great challenge.  Concentrated breeding for dairy production at even a homestead level will not happen without a major shift.

In my more caustic moments, my head tells me to send the remaining animals to the stockyards at take advantage of the current spike in cattle prices, but I wont.

As my wife says, I am getting to be an old duffer, so I need to make decisions about how to spend the rest of my days. I like raising young stock but have no interest in beef cow-calf. If I did, I would not look to the Kerry. I would look towards something like this

As crossbreeding material, the Kerry has a lot going for it, but as a pure breed, its value is really more historical than commercial.

If I sell the purebreds, they will likely go on a bizarre life journey from one new owner to another, as that seems the way with rare breeds (it seems tied to the 3-5 year turnover in new farm owners, who are mostly the people interested in rare breeds).

My gut tells me to out-cross everything to Jersey then back-cross to upgrade, but that will take more seed stock out of a dangerously low population, and prohibit future registration.

I get no ego satisfaction out of owning rare breeds, though I find livestock breed history endlessly fascinating. The rare breed world is plagued with too many personality conflicts, as evidenced by the three dueling Dexter cattle associations. There is even an alternative Kerry cattle association in the US which is a whole other herd and story. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy strikes me as effete and feckless in dealing with such matters.

For now, I will just keep feeding and cogitating.


Dalriata said...

Mr. Grossman, why don't you as you mention in your article do an out-cross to Jersey and work for a stable cross that can be used as a homestead cow. This could free up the genetic bottleneck and help small holders throughout the country. It is a shame that some breeds are left behind, but using the traits that are profitable like forage ability combined with the tried and true ability of the Jersey, especially those of the more traditional type could be a real benefit for all. Michael

The Midland Agrarian said...

I have talked to some folks about just such an approach since writing this. Thanks for your comment.

sidetracksusie said...

I indulged my "sin" of fine cheese a few years ago and brought home some Kerrygold Dubliner and butter. It's an indulgence we continue.
Our retirement plans include a small homestead and a dairy cow, as in Wyoming you can't sell or buy raw milk, you must own the cow. It's this type of ridiculousness that leads ordinary city folk like my husband to work doubly hard in order to make these plans possible. He asked me what type of dairy animal we should have our teenage son raise and show in 4H (and supply our milk) and I said we'll have a dairy cow when I can get a Kerry and we'll only have one of those when hades freezes over.
It's been a long winter, but I don't quite think hades has frozen over. The cow is still on our agenda, and the land purchase in a much greener and warmer area in Idaho is well on it's way. I have bucket raised orphans from my great aunt's commercial feedlot but they were beef animals that we always ate when 4H was over, which was a little difficult for me, as we always made those critters pets (large ones that ran to you!)
I look forward to your posts on your site and your wife's and enjoy all you can throw at me about the Kerry's. If the association really wants to save and expand the herd (and I don't think many of them do) I think there would be an embryo transfer program. Maybe I'm wrong. Hope so.

The Midland Agrarian said...

HI Sidetrack susie,
Kerrygold is mostly made with Holstein-Frisian milk, but is it good cheese.

I think the nearest Kerry cattle to you are in Kansas. Check the Kerry cattle society breeders list.