Arguing about Dairy Breeds

In my growing-up years on the farm in North Beaver Creek, a friend whose family had Jersey dairy cows that gave very rich milk, used to poke fun at those of us with Holstein herds by teasing, “When we finish milking our Jersey cows, we rinse the bucket with the milk from our Holstein.” That was but one of the arsenal of comments among farmers about which breed was best – and those arguments have a long history.

In 1873 Elias and Kari Borreson moved to Fitch Coulee (our grandfather Emil was less than a year old). Bertinus and Maria Estensen, who married in 1879 and also bought a farm in Fitch Coulee, are pictured in this blog from 1886-1887. In these very years, 1870s and 1880s, when Wisconsins’s dairy industry was barely an infant, state newspapers already featured disagreeing opinions about breed preferences. Let me give you glimpse from two articles.

In “The Dairy Breeds” (Oshkosh Daily Northwestern, March 13, 1876, p. 3), the writer was taking another to task, insisting that “The Jersey [is] the butter breed; the Devon the beef or fancy breed; the Short-Horn and the Hereford the beef producing breed; the Ayrshire and the Holstein the milk or cheese producing breed.” The Alderney and Guernsey (Channel Island) breeds were also for butter.

He also argued that Devon cattle were ordinary milkers that made the best oxen. The Short-Horn was “the best known of all breeds,” and whatever good qualities the “American Breed” possessed, it owed to the Short-Horn (or Shorthorn). Even in 1876, the writer credited Ayrshires and especially Holsteins for being superior milk producers. (Today in Wisconsin, I recall that 90% of dairy cows are Holsteins.) All these points were made by the writer because someone else got his dander up!

An article ten years later (Stevens Point Daily Journal, Feb. 20, 1886, p. 7) was written at the conclusion of a Farmers’ Institute, an innovation of the university in Madison. This article repeated the good point made by Geo. Austin of Neilsville that the farmer needed to select a cattle breed based on his purpose, whether for beef or for milk, and to keep in mind that there was no such thing as a “general purpose” cow – meaning simultaneously for beef and milk. (That opinion contradicted the common wisdom of the day when cattle were dual and even triple use: beef, milk and labor as oxen.)

The writer said Hiram Smith, the chair of the Institute who had a Jersey herd, managed to say that if you wanted to cheat your local cheesemaker, you’d sell him Holstein milk (because it was lower in butterfat)! This upset the writer who said there would have been a different answer with Holstein men in charge. Then he went on to describe the famous Holstein cow Mercedes whose butter production had won a contest open to all breeds. Hiram Smith’s Jersey cows supposedly averaged 200 pounds of butter each season. Other farmers said their cows did as well, but they felt insulted that theirs were called “scrubs,” and good for nothing.

Look at that Estenson pioneer picture of 1886-1887 and see what you think about the cattle. The oxen are Bright and Buck, according to Clara’s history, and there appear (to me) about six other cattle in the photo. In these early immigrant years, I am guessing they were crossbreds used for milk (butter, cheese), for meat on the table, and for farm work(pulling wagons, planters, etc.).

The 1880s were pivotal years. The Farmers’ Institutes had been initiated by the university in 1885. Hoard’s Dairyman magazine for the fledgling dairy industry was founded in the same year (and still continues). Both these institutions played key roles in Wisconsin becoming the premier dairy state. As I look at the 1886-1887 Estensen photo with eight cattle, two of which were oxen, it appears to me the end of an era. Horses first, then tractors, replaced oxen, and every farmer had to decide what he wanted from his cattle in the future, milk or meat, and select his breed(s) accordingly.

Shorthorns were the earliest breed in Wisconsin, often dual purpose. Later part of the breed was bred for milking, another part for beef. Our grandmother Gina had a cousin, Theodore Thorson, who had built up a premier Shorthorn herd before his early death in 1924 (Homestead, 9). I’d love to learn more about this.

From the late 1920s and 1930s, Uncle Sid remembers mixed breeds such as Ayrshire-Guernsey cows in his father’s herd, and then a switch to Holsteins, a sign that the decisions – and arguments too – about the best breeds continued down the decades.

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