The Kerry Cow

The Kerry cattle (Irish: Bó Chiarraí or Buinín) are a rare breed of dairy cattle, native to County Kerry in Ireland. They are believed to be one of the oldest breeds in Europe. The Kerry Cow descends from the ancient, fine-boned, black Celtic cattle that occupied this area at the time of Caesar’s invasion of Britain..

Their coat is almost entirely black, with a little white on the udder. She is of dairy type, well ribbed with fine bone. She has slender white horns tipped with black, though most herds are now de-horned.

She has character, is alert and light on her feet.The horns are whitish with dark tips. They are equally suited to being one of a big herd or single house cows. The bull is similar in character to the cow. He is usually docile and easily managed.Cows weighs about 350–400 kg and produces 3000–3700 kg of milk per lactation.

The breed is probably descended from the Celtic Shorthorn, brought to Ireland as early as 2000 BC. They were developed as a milking breed suited to small subsistence farms of southern and western Ireland.

They cause less damage to soils in high rainfall areas than larger breeds. By 1983 there were only around 200 pedigree Kerry cattle in the world, but numbers have since increased.  

According to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, prior to the 17th century the breed was one of the most prevalent in Ireland but was little known outside of its native land. The importation of other cattle breeds and crossbreeding during the 1800’s led to a population decline of the Kerry breed in their native land. Kerry cattle were isolated in the impoverished southwestern regions of Ireland, where the breed’s ability to thrive and grow on meager forage under harsh conditions made it an important asset to poor farmers.

The Kerry has been called the world’s first true dairy cow, with an average annual milk production, from a good cow, of 7,700 to 9,900 pounds per year. These cattle are slow-growing but long-lived, with cows often having calves with ease at 15 years of age or older. Considered to be one of the best “family cows,” they are well known for producing good amounts of milk on little forage. 

The cows enjoy a long useful life, still strong and calving regularly at 14 and 15 years of age. They are extremely hardy and will out winter quite happily, growing a good coat of hair which keeps the cold out. Their agility enables them to travel safely over rough ground and they do little damage to the pastures. Because of their size at least three Kerries can be kept to two of other breeds.

The cows rarely have trouble calving, for there is more room in the pelvis than would appear from the size of the cow. The calves are easily reared and the bullocks will fatten, though they may take 4 to 6 months longer than other breeds. They make excellent quality beef weighing up to 550 kg.

The globules of butterfat in Kerry milk are much smaller than those found in other breeds, thus making it easier to digest. As a result it is ideal for feeding to babies, invalids and others who find it hard to take fat. This emphasises the breed as eminently suitable for fresh milk, cheese and yogurt production.

Several Irish farmhouse cheese makers use Kerry milk. The average milk yield is between 3000 and 3700kg at 4% butterfat. However there are quite a number of cows capable of yielding over 4500kg.

In 2006, Murphy’s Ice Cream began using milk from the Kerry cow in a bid to support the indigenous breed and because the milk is so creamy and ideal for ice-making.

Kerry cattle were first imported into the United States in1818, coming ashore in Pennsylvania. The breed never became widely popular in the U.S., but a small population exists today from re-importations of cattle and semen beginning in the 1960s. The breed is considered globally rare, and the population in North America could help to re-establish the breed if some disaster should occur to the larger population in Ireland and the U.K. North American Kerry breeders are working with the Kerry Cattle Society in Ireland, who registers stock, to conserve these rare cattle.

The Kerry breed is still critically rare, but populations are slowly increasing as people rediscover the homesteading qualities of this perfect backyard cow.