The Irish Kerry Cow Brian Payne, Keri-Rose



The Irish Kerry Cow Brian Payne, Keri-Rose
The Irish Kerry Cow
Brian Payne, Keri-Rose Livestock and Consulting
Jansen, Saskatchewan, 306-560-0206, [email protected]
The distinction of being the world’s “first real dairy cow” comes from
P.L Curran’s history of “Kerry and Dexter Cattle and other Ancient Irish
Breeds”. He describes the Kerry as being one of the oldest breeds in Europe
and suggests that “While prehistoric man in Asia, North Africa and Europe
was selecting and breeding cattle for draught and meat, the Celtic
civilization in Ireland was producing a breed of cattle for milk and dairy
produce.” The mild climate provided grazing for most of the year and thus
an opportunity for significant dairy production. Archaeological evidence
demonstrates that milk was preserved as cheese and butter and also treated
with herbs and kept in buried jars; meat was apparently rarely eaten.
DNA evidence suggests that the Kerry breed probably originated in
Persia and was brought northwards through Romania, the Mediterranean
basin and eventually Ireland as the Celtic civilization moved northwards.
There are close affinities with the small black Heren cattle in the Alps and
the Spanish fighting bulls produced from the Camargue region in southern
France. It is interesting to note that the Heren cows from the canton of
Valois in Switzerland have been featured since the 17th century in the
“Combat de Reines” or the Battle of the Queens. The first official “cow
fight” was organized in 1923…Modern testimony to the lively Kerry
Kerry bulls are similar in character to the cow. “He is usually docile and
easily managed.” (Irish Kerry Cattle Society brochure). Pictured in the
foreground is Keri-Rose Leprechaun (Mona R. Liafail X Mona First Crush)
Feral intelligence and a rugged spirit were necessary for survival in the
“wild track of mountain between Gilly Kuddy Rock, near Killarney, and
Bantry Bay”. Successive invasions of Romans, Saxons and Vikings had
forced the indigenous Celts and their black Shorthorn cattle (the dominant
type of cattle in Ireland up until the end of the seventeenth century) into the
highlands of county Kerry in the south-western corner of the country. An
account written in 1800 by George Garrard speaks to the hardiness of the
“These cattle, being reared in a country of rocks and heath,
are of course very hardy and live upon little food. Their
properties are said to be that of giving the richest quality of
milk, and the greatest quantity for the sustenance they
It was the isolation of the Kerry cow for centuries, or perhaps millennia,
in these mountains and mountain valleys which confer on the breed its
“aboriginal uniqueness”. They were developed according to the demands of
local climate and topography as well as a locally oriented knowledge of
animal husbandry. They were the best available compromise between the
economic and environmental demands of subsistence agriculture in the
peasant society of rural Ireland;
“In an earlier period of our history, when security of land tenure
was almost non-existent for the native Irish, a mobile domestic
resource of a hardy and frugal nature was an invaluable commodity.”
David Low’s 1845 publication, “On the Domesticated Animals of the
British Islands”, describes the value of the Kerry breed as follows:
“It is the large quantity of milk yielded by an animal so small,
which renders the Kerry cow so generally valued by the cottagers
and smaller tenants of Ireland…she is frequently termed the poor man’s
cow and she merits this appellation by her capacity of subsisting on
such fare as he has the means to supply.”
This uniqueness enhanced the popularity of the breed in the nineteenth
century and agricultural journals of the time were full of optimism as they
extolled the virtues of the Kerry:
“The association of small size, frugality and hardiness, with
substantial milk and butterfat production, and with a
reputation for longevity, freedom from disease and special
suitability of the milk for children and invalids, all tend to focus
attention on these attractive and docile animals.”
Joe Zink (Colpitts Ranches), Calgary provides a modern description of
the unique quality of Kerry milk as follows:
“Like the milk of a goat, Kerry cream does not separate as would
that of a Jersey or Holstein. The fat globules are much smaller
and their agglutination properties are less reactive. Perhaps for
this reason their milk is claimed to benefit persons whose
constitution does not tolerate modern homogenized milk.”
Photos of Kerry cows in milk have been provided by Raymonde Hilliard
(Castlelough Kerries)
The principal butter merchants of Cork described the milk of Kerry cows
as “richer in cream than that of either the Ayrshire or the Galloways” and
described its color as being the “brightest shade of yellow”. W.S. Purdon, in
his 1863 treatise, “Purdon’s Practical Farmer”, also commented on the
potential for high quality beef from the breed:
“…when put in good keep they fatten readily, and their beef
is fine in the grain and of excellent flavour.”
Other sources described Kerry beef as “tender, well marbled and commands
the highest price in the market” and that “a demand for small meat joints in
preference to large…had greater appeal to the butcher”. Kennedy (1931) in
the Kerry Cattle Herd Book provides the most detailed description:
“the beef is excellent. There is a complete absence of courseness,
the lean fibres being very fine, the fat white and firm, and running
in thin streaks through the lean.”
Even with such popular support the Kerry breed was destined to decline
quite rapidly before the end of the 19th century. While some writers attribute
this decline simply to the introduction of other breeds and crossbreeding,
Ireland’s troubled history has also played a significant role.
Across the United Kingdom, the 1800’s began with growing human
populations, the introduction of new fodder crops for livestock and better
transportation for farm products. These factors in turn generated greater
profitability and entrepreneurship in the livestock sector. The end result was
that new livestock breeds could be introduced into areas far removed from
their original locales. The scientific development of selective breeding also
focused greater attention on improving the genetic characteristics of cattle
such as their finished carcass weight, milk yield and speed of maturation.
Specialist dairy breeds such as the Ayrshire and Guernsey and specialist beef
breeds like the Hereford formed breed societies in the 1870-80s and soon
replaced the first improved breed of cattle, the dual purpose Shorthorn.
Keri-Rose Flybob in foreground (RR Norman X KR Fenella)
Just when technological change was propelling agricultural productivity
forward; Ireland and its cultural icon, the Kerry cow, were both devastated
by the great potato famine of 1845-1852. P.L.Curran describes the
subsequent political and social upheaval and its impact on the breed as
“Kerrymen, struggling to survive in the decades following the
Great Famine, were not in a position to address the finer points
of breeding and selection policy for their native cattle…promoters…
lost interest coinciding with the re-emergence of a separate Irish
Nation; a Nation too confused and too poor to support a program
of advancement for its native cattle, in competition with
comprehensive systems of support for developing British breeds.”
“The (Kerry) Society was formed at a time of political change
in Ireland (1917). The fortunes of title owners of large estates were
destined to go into decline. Many of these estate owners had been
firm supporters of the breed.
From the first part of the 19th century and proud claims that the Kerries
were “the best milch cows in Ireland, (and) possibly in Europe”, a 1953
breed comparison (Moore) demonstrates how severely the lack of any
substantial, monitored and sustained breeding policy had hurt the breed.
FOR COWS OVER 5 YEARS OF AGE (peak milk yield/lbs./day)
British Friesian 59.2
From being the dominant breed in Ireland, 200 years of history had left it
virtually extinct with a 1982 breed survey showing only 180 females. Its
only claim to fame was that it had become the only remaining native breed
in the country! Even more amazing is that despite the Irish Veterinary News’
gloomy prediction in 1990 that “the Kerry is unlikely to expand again in
numbers for economic reasons” the Kerry today is alive, well and expanding
with female registrations now averaging nearly 500/year!
Much of this resurgence is the result of the tireless efforts of the Kerry
Cattle Society of Ireland’s Secretary, Raymonde Hilliard. Giving credit
where credit is due, it is also the result of conservation efforts initiated first
in 1973 by the Rare Breeds Survival Trust in the United Kingdom and later
followed in 1982 by a premium scheme by Ireland’s Department of
A paradigm shift was shaking the foundations of agriculture! Economic
rationale was being replaced! Even the conservative Irish Veterinary News’
1990 article on the “Conservation of the Kerry Breed” had to conclude that
“Despite the fact that it is no longer competitive, the Kerry is worth
preserving.” Report authors O’Huigin and Cunningham put a “value” on;
a) historic, cultural “uniqueness”;
b) future, un-defined “usefulness”; and
c) participation in the zeitgeist of the times, “a movement right across
Europe to preserve…rare breeds….and the Kerry is Ireland’s only
All Canadians should be proud that all North American Kerrys derive
from a Canadian importation in 1971. Truly a visionary, Dr. Russell Scott
was certainly ahead of his time!….Read on!
In Canada, the Kerry story started in 1971 with Belleville, Ontario
farmer, Dr. Russell Scott. After a holiday in Ireland, he became motivated
by a desire to protect this endangered breed “in case of a catastrophic disease
in Ireland” and imported 11 heifers and a bull. Fifteen years later, “Genesis”
the official publication of Rare Breeds Canada, reports that “Dr. Scott has
developed his herd to 10 cows and 3 bull calves”. Clearly, by 1986, the rare
breed movement had not yet touched Canada and provided economic
motivation for Kerry herd expansion!
“The rest of the story” belongs to Jy Chiperzak, filmmaker-turnedfarmer and the visionary who captured Canadian hearts and changed
indifference to heritage livestock conservation into an action plan! With his
wife Gail, Jy founded Joywind Farm Rare Breeds Conservancy, Canada’s
first demonstration farm for endangered breeds of farm livestock
(Harrowsmith, “Chiperzak’s Ark”, Laird O’Brien, July/August,1988).
While researching the loss of plant genetic resources for the CBC’s
“Nature of Things” film, “Fragile Harvest”; Chiperzak became acutely
aware that the loss of farm animal biodiversity was in worse shape than with
plant species. Since there was no public or private funding set aside for
conservation work Joywind was created as a federally incorporated body
with charitable-organization tax status. Its advisory panel included animal
scientists from Agriculture Canada, the University of Saskatchewan, the
Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food and the Department of Animal and
Poultry Science at the University of Guelph.
Perhaps more important than the passion and dedication that the
Chiperzak’s poured into their farm, their North American Kerry Cattle
Society Newsletter and their other rare breed interests: the Chiperzak’s
quietly ignited a spark of doubt in existing agricultural systems. The
“corporate barnyard” was being publicly questioned;
“Our future could be at stake. As farming has become more
industrialized and energy-intensive, a small number of breeds
have become dominant – specialized animals that respond well
to high-energy diets, confined living conditions and intensive
medical treatment….The price of this specialization is that the
popular breeds are developing narrow, fragile gene pools which
may be susceptible to disease….These minor breeds can protect
our food supply and guard against the unknown.”
Jy Chiperzak appealed to the intellect of Canadian consumers with some
carefully reasoned responses to an essential question: “Why bother to retain
breeds that cannot compete in today’s barnyard?….Geneticists and animal
scientists list five reasons:
1. The first is diversity, the basic principle of ecological health….
2. Next is energy efficiency: the high productivity of today’s successful
breeds is bought with the currency of high-energy feeds and intensive
3. Third is their variety of uses. Some of the rare breeds have dual or
multiple purposes….
4. Fourth is hybrid vigour, a well-known phenomenon in which crossing
two un-related breeds results in a progeny that is bigger, stronger and
faster growing than either of its parents…Minor breeds that are not
economically practical by themselves may be of great value in
commercial cross-breeding programs….
5. The last, and perhaps the most neglected reason to retain minor breeds
is their cultural value…They should be preserved just the way we
preserve old buildings and other artifacts.”
Mona Maid Blanaid with Keri-Rose Molly Maid (X Mona C. Fithel)
Chiperzak’s conservation ethic; his heartfelt concern that rare breeds
provide an insurance policy against future unknowns, is best summed up in
one of his favourite quotations:
“It is sobering to learn that had France and Italy decided to use
machinery for traction earlier than they did, their draught breeds
would probably have become extinct, and we would not have the
large beef breeds, such as the Charolais, the Limousin, the
Marchigiana and the Romagnola, which are so much in demand…
for terminal crossing in beef-breeding programmes.”
I.L.Mason, The Evolution of Domestic Animals
“Chiperzak’s Ark” had an immediate impact on the Kerry breed in
Canada. It was this Harrowsmith article that inspired Judy and Dan
Fitzsimmons to start Rimridge Farms in Rimbey. A long time animal lover,
it was Judy’s dream to “have a farm where people may come to see a variety
of rare breeds and to perhaps become interested in the importance of
protecting the breeds for future generations”. From a Kerry breed
perspective, Judy’s purchase of a young bull (Softwind Peter), two bred
cows (Russell Felicia and Russell Kelly) and a heifer (Maplewood Nessa)
meant that the Kerry breed would move West! Felicia and Nessa would
prove beyond a doubt that the Kerry cow has tremendous longevity. Felicia
had her last calf at 22 while Nessa kept breeding past 19 years of age.
Photograph of Rimridge Princess, a grand daughter of Russell Felicia on the
maternal side of the pedigree and Softwind Peter on the top side.
Over 20 years had elapsed since Dr. Russell Scott had imported his Kerry
cows from Ireland. The progeny of these only live imports into North
America in modern times had dispersed throughout Eastern Canada and the
U.S. but had never made it “out West”. In 1993 however, the endangered
status of the Irish Kerry cow prompted Alberta dairymen, Joe Zink and
Jorgen Lindved Jensen to create the Mona herd partnership. Len Shirley,
(Grandora, Saskatchewan) and the aforementioned Fitzsimmons Rimridge
herd resulted in 3 Western Canadian registered Kerry herds.
The Mona partnership distinguished itself in 1995 by being the first
breeder to utilize embryo transplant technology in the Kerry breed. Their
usage of new Irish import bull, Castlelough Oisin was critical in slowing
down the rate of inbreeding within the Western Canadian Kerry gene pool.
Their interest in co-operation through a sire exchange with the Fitzsimmons
herd was also beneficial to breed development.
Photograph of Rimridge Amber, a dtr. of R. Felicia and dam of RR. Princess
By 2005 the Mona herd was dispersed between Lisa Van Ee and Sam
and Myrla Johnson of Black Diamond and Brian and Katie Payne of
Scandia. Shortly thereafter, the Fitzsimmons herd moved to Scandia under a
management agreement with the Paynes (Keri-Rose). This new wave of
Kerry enthusiasts has between them the largest Kerry herd in North America
(over 40 breeding females). While the responsibility is sometimes
overwhelming, there has never been a more positive environment for unique,
fresh and local food products.
The real potential for the Irish Kerry cow is yet to be tapped! Consider
the following and come on board!
1) The slow food movement is “a global grassroots movement…that
links the pleasure of food with a commitment to community and the
environment”. It began in Italy in 1986 as a reaction to the
establishment of a MacDonalds “fast food” restaurant and it is now an
international organization with 100,000 members in 132 countries.
They founded their “Ark of Taste” in 1996 as a resource for
biodiversity around the world. “Ark products range from the Italian
Valchiavenna goat to the Navajo-Churro sheep, from the last
indigenous Irish cattle breed, the Kerry, to a unique variety of
Greek fava beans….” Clearly, the slow food movement and the
ecogastronomic culture that it has engendered could provide
considerable market opportunity for Kerry products.
Mona Sunswept Sive with her 2010 heifer calf, Keri-Rose Softly Sage,
by Rimridge Knight 2T (Conservancy Ravenscrag X Rimridge Katie)
2) Small Farm Canada (July/August, 2006) suggests that “the demand
for flavourful food, from older breeds that thrive under natural
conditions is growing.” Canadians are becoming more and more
reluctant to “trade off taste, quality and, some say our health to have
cheap meat and poultry that is industrially produced like widgets.”
(Keep them to Eat them and Eat them to Keep Them; A Bold new
approach to Preserving Rare Breed Livestock and Their Wealth of
Genetic Diversity- T.Lawrence and L.MacKenzie). American
Livestock Breeds Conservancy chairman, Gary Sojka, echoes these
sentiments: “America’s heritage breeds can provide alternatives to this
type of industrialized animal agriculture since they have generally
been developed to perform optimally in the environments in which
they arose, making them attractive in free-range or more natural
production systems…successful chefs, and an increasing number of
discerning consumers, are finding naturally-raised, heritage
breeds to be a preferred alternative to ‘mass-produced’
commoditized animal products.”
Mona Briar Rose with some of Keri-Rose’s 2010 calf crop
3) The award winning Gubbeen Cheese, produced by Tom and Giana
Ferguson of Cork, Ireland is stimulating interest from farmstead and
artisan cheese makers all over North America: “We have been
involved with Kerry cows for approximately twelve years, and
their milk is an important part of our cheese making. Giana has
on occasion, made a single cheese from the Kerry milk, it was
lovely to work with and it did have a signature flavour.”
Natural, grass-based production systems can generate gourmet
products that service increased consumer interest in animal welfare,
human health and nutrition and environmental responsibility. Perhaps,
at last, the ancient Irish Kerry, “the world’s first real milk cow” will get
the credit she is due!
4) If you aren’t already convinced…google…. Murphy’s ice cream,
Dingle, Co. Kerry, Ireland. Artisan Ice Cream anyone?
Rimridge Princess with her red heifer calf, Keri-Rose Patience
(by Mona Charmed Fithel) Above is Keri-Rose Mor (Morgan X Ladra)
All Kerry cows pictured are owned by Keri-Rose except where indicated.
Taking a page out of history…and an epitaph for a beloved friend,
Jorgen Lindved Jensen…Dreams Never Die….Just the Dreamer…

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