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Celebrate Dairy Month

Friday, June 20, 2014 - Updated: 6:22 AM

June is Dairy Month.

Archaeologists say that humans began milking cows at least as early as 3000 BC, when dairy production became an important source of food in ancient Samaria.

The first tame bovine was the aurochs, a wild ancestor of the modern cow. Aurochs ranged over most of Europe, Asia and Northern Africa until they were domesticated between 8,000 and 1,000 years ago, somewhere in the Near East.

Domestic cattle then split into two groups, Bos Taurus, including Holsteins and Black Angus, and Bos Indicus, the sort of cattle that have humps, such as Brahmas and Zebu.

Bos Taurus has since been selectively bred to produce dozens of breeds for many purposes.

Some say the first cattle in North America were brought here by Christopher Columbus on his 1493 second voyage. Other sources claim it was Ponce de Lion who brought some cows to Florida in 1521 or Don Diego Maldonado, who brought more in 1540.

For a long time most cows here were of Spanish origin.

Those first cows looked nothing like bovines of today; not your grandma's Holsteins, so to speak. They were instead wild and wooly beasts a lot like today's Longhorns: thin, wily and dangerous. They quickly turned feral and populated harsh southwestern lands. With lethal horns they were well able to fight off predators and were good foragers that thrived on sparse western vegetation.

Later these cows helped form the foundation for ranch herds, as settlers moved west.

During the 1800s, this early beef herd was enhanced by the infusion of Hereford blood from English cows, rendering meat animals stockier, shorter-legged, and calmer, if somewhat less hardy.

Meanwhile, the dairy herd was growing and changing as well.

It is said that in 1623 two Devon heifers and one bull were brought to the Plymouth colony, probably marking the beginning of America's dairy industry. The Devon was originally a dual-purpose breed, well suited to settlers who needed an animal that would make some milk, serve as a draft animal, and could be turned into beef at the end of its career. Other sources claim that the cattle were Kerrys from Ireland.

It is thought that the hills of southwestern England, where the red breeds originated, were grazed by bright red cattle when the Romans arrived in 55 BC.

According to Oklahoma State University, today Devons are classified as beef animals. However, the American Milking Devon Cattle Association still registers 1,000 or so head a year. These are said to be the last milking Devons in the world.

In the early days, the dairy industry involved mostly family cows. Most milk produced was consumed right on the farm, as fluid milk, cheese, or butter, or fed to livestock. It wasn't until the early 1900s that pasteurization, selective breeding, better feeding, health testing, the ability to centrifugally separate cream from milk, and to test for the percentage of butterfat in milk moved dairy production into the commercial sector.

The invention of the mechanical milking machine also played a large role in providing milk to a widespread populace. Many viable dairy inventions coincided with World War II, during which many young men left the farm and never returned, creating a need for labor-saving technology.

It wasn't until well into the 20th century that the spread of available electricity and improved refrigeration made it possible for milk to move from region to region. This coincided roughly with mass migration of Americans from rural areas to urban settings, where they needed to purchase farm products rather than grow their own.

According to the EPA, cow and farm numbers peaked during the 1940s, with milk production becoming more concentrated in fewer areas, such as the upper Midwest, the Northeast, and some Western states. There were 85.6 million cows in America in 1945. Of those cattle, 25.6 million were dairy cows.

During that era there were 6.1 million American farms. Each farmer was able to feed 10.7 people per year.

Today that trend toward an urban populace has skyrocketed. There are only 2 million farms in America, even by the generous measurements of the USDA, which considers many tiny, part-time entities to be farms. However, the average farmer feeds 155 people per year. At this time there are only 9.2 million dairy cows in the country, yet they produce more than 40 million more pounds of milk per year than did those many more cattle of the '40s.

Wessels Living History Farm said of dairy production, "In 1944, the average cow produced 4,572 pounds of milk in a year. In the year 2000, she produced 18,197 pounds of milk. That's four times as much milk from a single cow over a 55-year period. That's remarkable in another way - milk cows weigh around 1,000 pounds, so each cow is producing 18 times her own weight in milk each year."

Today's cows have come a long way in appearance as well, with the short, fat Devons and Kerrys replaced by long, tall, Holsteins, elegant Jerseys, and many other outstanding dairy breeds.

If Dairy Herd Management has it right, sheep dairying may be the next frontier. New Zealand's Landcorp state-owned corporate farm boasted 13,000 tons of milk solids last year. Now the company is looking into using the nation's 31 million sheep to produce dairy products. Since the U.S. already imports half the sheep milk cheese in the world, so they are looking to send it here.

Personally I will stick with dairy products that originate with cows, but if you prefer sheep, or goat or camel milk, well and good.

We haven't decided exactly what product will appear on the Northview menu in honor of Dairy Month, but with Time Magazine featuring butter on the cover, June being the month of the Strawberry Moon, and National Ice Cream month coming up soon, I think some buttery shortcake, and a scoop of velvety vanilla ice cream, topped with some bright red strawberries, will make the perfect birthday cake for the dairy industry. You could make some, too.

Fultonville dairy farmer MARIANNE FRIERS

is a regular columnist. She blogs



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