Last week World Dairy Expo, the annual mecca of the dairy industry, drew thousands of people (and 2,411 cattle) to Madison. I translated Spanish at international registration during the expo, but on the last day I had some time to roam around the grounds.
I stopped by the white tent housing the Grazing Pavillion on the far end of the South parking lot. It’s so far away from the hub of the showring, the barns, and the grilled cheese stand that it’s almost an all too perfect metaphor for the division between conventional and local/organic agriculture.
Four speckled dairy cattle were relaxing in the pavilion, seemingly unaware of the attention their colorful markings garnered from passerbyers. The green banners above them read: ”Normande: the sustainable and quality breed.”
Branding a cow as sustainable–what an interesting idea. What makes a cow sustainable? A poster at the Normande Genetics booth listed these qualities under “sustainability”:
- excellent forage converter
- exceptional fertility
- body condition and sturdiness
- reliable genetics: 120 bulls tested per year
Two of the Normande cows at Expo were from the farm of Barbara Wogsland, a dairy farmer and board member of the North American Normande Association. Barbara has a background in raising Holsteins, but when she saw a photo of a Normande in a magazine six years ago, she thought they were the “neatest looking cow.” The splotchy coloring is what made most people stop and stare at World Dairy Expo, too.
“I don’t why it is, but 90 percent of the time it’s women that are attracted to Normandes,” Barbara said.
Normandes can be white, brown, black, red and often are spotted and brindled (streaked with a different color). Barbara said most people she spoke with had never seen a cow with brindling before.
Okay, it actually looks like this:
Barbara initially purchased one Normande cow as a novelty, but she was so pleased with the cow’s performance that she bought Normande semen from France to start crossbreeding her Holsteins. In terms of milk production, the Normandes make a little less pounds of milk, but have a higher percent of butter fat and protein.
What about sustainability?
“They’re a smaller cow that’ll eat less compared to a Holstein and still give you a richer product. They’re known to be very good grazers. Those are all traits that would make an animal more sustainable.”
Plus the value of bull calves is greater, since they’re more “beefy” than other dairy cattle. That’s not surprising, considering Normande is a dual-purpose breed, which means the breed has both dairy animals and beef animals.
I started raising Normande beef cattle in 2003 after learning about the breed online. Call me shallow but, like everyone else, what caught my eye was their looks. I always anticipate calving season, because I never know what color calves my Normandes will surprise me with.
And, like Barbara, I soon realized there’s more to Normandes than the pizzazz of pretty hair. They’re moderate-sized hardy grazers that are easy to work with. After purchasing my first Normande heifer, I started cross-breeding my Polled Hereford cows to Normande bulls. First generation crosses generally keep the Hereford look, while adding eye patches and/or spots to the white face. The Normande genetics also adds more body depth and length.
I’m still not sure about calling cows sustainable. I think cattle can be raised in sustainable ways. And certain cattle traits can make sustainable practices easier to accomplish. But cattle themselves? Let me ruminate on this.