When we picture a dairy farm, most of us (Americans anyways) picture the iconic red barn-silo duo and black and white spotted cows happily chewing their cud in the midst of bucolic pastures. What most of us don’t realize is that there are hundreds of breeds of dairy cows in the world, all hailing from different places, and bred for specific purposes. And does the breed of the cow influence the flavor of the cheese, you ask? Heck yes!! The breed of cow (in concert with how they are raised and what they are fed) has an indelible impression on the finished cheese – from flavor to texture, and even (yes) the color!
Read on to learn more about the rare and diverse breeds of cows favored by our farmers, and treat yourself to a taste of cheese from five different breeds with our ‘Cow Breed Quintet’
Spring Brook Tarentaise
Jersey cows, long prized for their capacity to produce milk chock full of butterfat, originally hail from the Isle of Jersey in the English Channel just off the coast of France. Characterized by their caramel color, sweet dispositions, and toupee-like hairdos, these cows produce more milk per pound of their own body weight than any other! They are also terrific grazers, thriving in the intensive grazing programs that many of our cheesemakers employ. The color of their milk is astonishingly yellow – this color comes from the carotenes in the grass they eat, making the old adage ‘you are what you eat’ totally apparent – and true! Spring Brook Farm has one of the country’s top herds of registered Jersey cows, and their Tarentaise shows off just how special the milk is.
Dutch Belted cows are like the Oreo cookies of the cow world – their glistening black coats boast a broad white stripe encircling their ample bellies – in fact, they might be more aptly called Dutch Cumberbunded. The first Dutch Belted cows were brought to the United States in 1838, and were quickly adopted by circus magnate PT Barnum who featured these rare and beautiful cows in his traveling shows. The Dutch Belted cow nearly became extinct in the 1970’s, but thanks to a handful of stalwart farmers and breeders, the breed is back in business! Patty and Roger Scholten of Scholten Farm in Vermont chose the Dutch Belted breed because ‘they look great’ (Patty’s quote – our cheesemakers are aesthetically-minded too!), produce milk with good butterfat, and their legs and hooves are well suited to being out on pasture. Weybridge, the diminutive disc of soft cheese made from their milk actually tastes a bit like a cow pie! (And we mean that in the most complimentary way!)
The Brown Swiss cow is one of the oldest dairying breeds in the world (some historians claim they date back to 4,000 BC!) and originally hail from the mountains and valleys of Switzerland. Brown Swiss cows are large in stature but sweet in temperament, making them ideal cows for milking. In fact, the folks at Shelburne Farms say that they can shave about a quarter of the time it would normally take to milk a herd of their size off just due to the fact that the cows are so darn cooperative. The Brown Swiss breed is known for being hardy, able to produce great quality milk from a diverse source of forage (the pastures of the Champlain Valley are a piece of cake to graze compared to the Swiss Alps!), as well as for their longevity. The registered herd at Shelburne Farms now numbers 120, and was started by Derick Webb in the 1950’s.
Bayley Hazen Blue
The Ayrshire cow is a Scottish breed known for its red and white spotted coat and also for the unique fat composition of its milk. While most dairy cows produce milk with large globules of fat (making it easy to skim off cream and make butter) the Ayrshire cow’s milk is almost naturally homogenized, meaning that the fat globules are smaller and the milk does not separate quite so easily into cream and skim. To call the Ayrshire tough and sturdy would be an understatement. In 1929 two Ayrshire cows were walked from the Breed headquarters in Brandon, Vermont to St Louis Missouri for an agricultural show. Not only did both cows survive the trip, they went on to have healthy calves and reach record milk production! Mateo and Andy Kehler of Jasper Hill Farm were drawn to the Ayrshire cow because of the smaller fat globules in their milk and their ability to hang even through the harshest of Vermont winters!
Marieke Truffle Gouda
The Holstein cow is the quintessential black and white spotted dairy cow, but it wasn’t always so! The Holstein (or Holstein-Friesian if you want to be super nerdy about it) rose to prominence in America in the 20th century due to its ability (through lots of selective breeding) to produce literally TONS of milk. Holsteins are the preferred breed of cow for farmers producing fluid milk because they are paid by the pound. A Holstein cow can make upwards of 70 pounds of milk per day – That’s a whopping 8.5 gallons per cow!! The breed was originally developed in Holland, and as Rolf and Marieke Penterman are of Dutch descent (and now natives of Wisconsin – a land well known for its black and white cows) it only seemed right to have Holsteins on the farm!