Jody Jess has one of the largest herds of Kerry cattle in North America.
She has 20 animals.
The ancient breed from Ireland, believed to be the first that farmers bred solely for dairy, is now critically endangered, according to The Livestock Conservancy.
“They’re almost extinct,” said Jess, who is the secretary of the American Kerry Cattle Association. “(The number) seems to grow, and then we start losing the old ones, and then it shrinks. So we kind of stay within that 40-50 number.”
That population of Kerry breeding cows in the U.S. and Canada looks especially small when compared to the number of Holsteins in the United States — roughly 8 million.
Jess owns Buckhill Farm in Westminster, Massachusetts, one of the few states that have any Kerry cattle. Maine, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania and Virginia are the others.
Jess said there are a number of unregistered herds throughout the U.S., but many of those cattle are crossbred so it’s hard to know the actual numbers.
Like most heritage breeds, Kerries don’t produce a lot of milk — only 2 ½ to 3 gallons per milking, averaging 5,000-8,000 pounds per year.
Again, those numbers are dwarfed by Holsteins, which produce about 75 pounds of milk per day, according to that breed’s national association.
Kerries’ volume might be small, but the milk has good component levels, with over 4% butterfat. And the globules in the butterfat are smaller than in most dairy breeds, making the milk “naturally homogenized,” Jess said.
The majority of the Kerry cattle in the U.S. have the A2A2 trait, which may appeal to consumers who have trouble digesting regular milk. And Kerries can milk for two or more years without having another calf.
“They make fabulous cheeses and ice cream,” said Jess, who particularly likes making Kerry Gouda and feta.
Kerry cattle in the U.S. are owned almost entirely by homesteaders. Jess said she knows of just one farmer in Utah who sells his Kerry milk commercially.
Kerry milk is more likely to be marketed in the breed’s native Ireland, though the number of Kerries there is also fairly low.
Because the breed is so rare, Jess has worked with the University of California, Davis, on a research study to look into the genetics.
“For as few as there are — and there’s always been few — there is still genetic diversity throughout them,” she said. “We do still have a chance to keep them from separating out and making their own breed.”
The association works to help keep the genetics diverse, and members often sell semen or even trade bulls to keep the genetics apart.
“We do try to help all the breeders,” Jess said, and with so few breeders raising Kerries, it’s relatively easy to keep everyone connected.
And the association is always looking for new breeders — especially dairy breeders.
“I would love them on a dairy,” Jess said. “Until they’re really on a true dairy setting, we’re not going to really know what their full potential is. And that’s one of our dreams.”
Kerries are excellent grazers, not picky eaters, and they love to be milked. They’re smart and trainable, but they can be skittish and protective of their calves.
“Once you own them, they’re totally a different cow,” Jess said. “They’re so unique.”
Kerries have a small frame, with most of the cows weighing under 1,000 pounds. Yet, they are hardy and rarely have problems with calving.
Keeping this historical breed on the map takes an international effort between the American Kerry Cattle Association and Ireland’s Kerry Cattle Society. Jess knows all the Kerry breeders in the U.S. and Canada, and she stays in contact with the secretary of Ireland’s society.
“My thing with Kerry is more preservation,” she said.