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Heritage Breed Milk: Use it or Lose It

The rare Pineywoods cow When I heard that dairy farmer and veterinarian Dr. Noreen Dmitri, the sister of NYFarmer (lawyer, dairy farmer and activist extraordinaire Lorraine Lewandrowski) recently attended a specialty dairy conference to study cheesemaking with the milk of heritage cows, my heart did a little dance. And by little, I mean a choreographed Flashdance number that was complete with a torn sweatshirt and leg warmers.

Let me explain. Imagine if you will dear reader, walking into a cheese shop where your choices of milk variety runs broader than the goat, cow, sheep, or the occasional feisty buffalo that are available now. Imagine being asked if you prefer Dutchie Belt or Randall Lineback milk for aged cheeses. Mmm hmm,.... and what about your fresh cheese preferences? The variety. The flavor range. The aesthetic benefit of having so many different types of cows in the field (so pretty).

Now imagine the cultural and farming impact of having these diverse, historical breeds in our country.

Lucky for us, Dr. Noreen Dmitri was happy to write about her experiences at the heritage cow and cheesemaking conference and about the importance of these rare breeds. We're only beginning to understand why heritage breeds are important and what we have to loose (cheese wise and beyond) if their legacy isn't preserved.

Her notes on the heirloom dairy conference follow.

A renewed interest in heritage livestock breeds is underway in the United States and Canada. The focus of a recent American Livestock Breeds Conservancy Conference held on November 11th and 12th, in Hamilton, New York, was making of cheeses from the milk of heritage breeds cattle.

“Use it or lose it” is applicable to heritage breed cattle. Consumer interest in products produced from the milk of endangered livestock breeds is essential for breed survival. Thanks to a grant from the Ceres Foundation, a workshop has been developed to produce cheeses from heritage breeds milk. This Dairy Processing 101 course was presented at the annual American Livestock Breeds Conservancy annual conference, with visits to five farmsteads producing value-added cheese products for sale to the public.

Learning About Heritage Breed Cattle


Ayrshire cow

Guided by Shannon Nichols of Heamour Farm, Madison, NY, participants were provided with information on breeds who have all but disappeared from modern dairy farms. These include the Milking Devon, Kerry, Dexter, Randall Lineback, Canadienne, Dutch Belted, Pineywoods, Red Poll, Milking Shorthorn, Ayrshire and Guernsey breeds.

The milks from these various breeds had traditional uses. The Milking Devon’s milk was used for butter and clotted cream production. The Ayrshire cow was cow of choice for milk used to make cheddar cheese in Scotland. Others such as the Randall Lineback served as a reliable family cow in times of old. Today, some of these breeds are rarer than the endangered Panda. For example, America’s first cattle breed, the Canadienne, survives with a registered population of less than five hundred left in the world. SVF Foundation has launched an effort to use modern embryo transplant technology to speed up reproduction of Canadienne offspring for placement with volunteer farmers in coming years. Details on modern technology for heritage breeds is at

Milking Devon

For dairy farmers and cheese makers the idea of producing a product with the milk of heritage breed livestock is exciting. Here in Upstate New York, some of the older farmers can remember seeing heritage cows with some frequency grazing the fields of historic dairy farms. As a practicing veterinarian, I am delighted that modern livestock reproductive technologies can be used to bring endangered livestock breeds back from the cusp of extinction. Biodiversity in the livestock herds of North America is a worthwhile venture to preserve breeds who have faithfully provided humans with milk for centuries past. Cheese makers who develop cheeses from the milk of heritage breeds will help us to keep these breeds viable for future generations.

Consumers’ Role in Saving Heritage Breeds – Eat Heritage Breed Cheeses!

The consumers’ role in saving heritage dairy breeds will involve much less work than that of the farmer and cheese maker. To fulfill the mission of saving heritage dairy breeds, consumers simply need to purchase cheeses made with milk from heritage cattle. Since few herds are composed entirely of heritage cattle at this point, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy has developed labeling requirements for cheese makers.


Dutch Belted

The terms “Heritage Milk” or “Heritage Milk Product” is reserved only for product that is “exclusively from animals that have been produced from the mating of registered, purebred parent stock.” It is recommended that the breeds of heritage cattle be stated on the product label. The term “Made with Heritage Milk” on the label is recommended for products where only a percentage of the milk comes from a heritage breed. It is recommended to producers that the heritage breed be identified and the percentage of heritage breed milk utilized be stated. In coming years, hopefully, dairy farmers around the country will work to renew the viability of heritage livestock breeds. Cheese connoisseurs can be part of the project simply by sampling and enjoying cheeses made with milk from the beautiful cattle breeds of old.

The small Dexter cow

Some mid-west and east coast farms selling cheeses made with heritage breeds milk, and the breed(s) they focus on:

Heamour Farm. Honey Gouda, Homesteader, Tinker Hollow cheeses. Ayrshire/Kerry.

Finger Lakes Farm. Kefir Cheese. Dexter.

Crawford Farm. Vermont Ayr. Ayrshire.

Sister Noella Marcellino, a Benedictine nun from Regina Laudis Abbey, makes Bethlehem cheese. Dutch Belted.

Jasper Hill Farms. Winnimere, Constant Bliss, Bayley Hazen, Moses Sleeper. Ayrshire.

Scholten Family. Weybridge Cheeses. Dutch Belted.

Sweet Home Farm. Elberta, Bama Jack, and more cheeses..... Guernsey.

Woodbridge Farm. Gruyere & Tomme style cheeses. Milking Devon.

Bunten Farm. Gouda, Cottage Cheese, and Blue. Milking Devon.

Author: Dr. Noreen Dmitri, DVM is a practicing veterinarian and dairy farmer in Herkimer County, New York. Thank you Dr. Dmitri and Lorraine! And thank you, American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, for use of the photos.

Want to read more? Here's an excellent article on heritage breed cheeses from the Wall Street Journal.

"It's Not You, it's Brie" readers, do you have a favorite breed of cow whose milk you prefer? Have you tried any of the above cheeses?