Selective breeding for milk and muscle has corroded cattle health and genetic diversity. Heritage breed farmers are pushing back.
That old cow out there, she’s 18, and she’s had 17 calves. . .She might just go get buried with that other old cow. I only ever buried one cow, but that cow, she was my father’s best cow. . .I used to let her live around the sheds, and she was one of them wise animals. You know, if she could talk, she could tell you something. And the kindest cow. I’ve got videos of [my daughter] milking her; she was a young kid. . .And I’ve got her daughters in our herd, and I’ve got her last son. . .and we’re using him back through the herd as well.
—Greg, Red Poll cattle farmer
In Greg’s recollections we see three generations of farmers perpetuating a bovine bloodline, whose prolific procreation, in turn, supports the farmers’ livelihood. For millennia, humans and cattle have lived interdependently. In return for shelter, feed and care, cattle have provided people with milk, meat, labor, and hides.
Since the 1940s, the goal of animal husbandry has shifted to increasing performance for economic gain. Cattle have been divided into dairy or beef breeds, and selectively bred for milk volume or rapid growth and muscling, respectively. Production increases have been extraordinary, yet have come at a cost to animal welfare, the environment, and genetic diversity. Recognizing the deep entanglements of humans and livestock, human-environment geographers Jody Emel, Connie L. Johnston, and Elisabeth Stoddard ask whether we can “practice a respectful, more just form of farming” with “more fulfilled, farmed animals that have lengthier and higher quality lives?” To this end, Australian heritage breed cattle farmers offer an alternative to the productivist model, as breeders make holistic selection decisions that reflect interspecies reciprocity developed over generations of cohabitation.
Farming family lineages
Greg comes from a long line of farmers. During World War II, with the men in the family away serving, his mother and grandmother hand-milked 40 Jersey cows, morning and night, in the fertile, volcanic country of western Victoria in Australia’s southeast. After the war, when Greg’s mother met and married his father, his grandmother gave the newlyweds two of her best cows, two buckets, and a separator to get them started off in their own dairy. Greg describes his mother as “a real animal person,” “a cow woman,” who had a keen eye for breeding and taught her children and grandchildren how to live well with cattle.
Greg’s father was also a skilled cattleman, who experimented with several breeds before settling on Red Polls. When he was dying from leukemia, he passed his beloved herd on to his son. Greg describes his early years of farming as follows:
We were in a drought when I started leasing ground, and I just didn’t want to sell this beautiful line of heifers. So the first year of rent was the hardest; I remember selling cull cows to pay the rent. We had a young family, you know, young kids under 10. They were tough times. So we crawled and scraped and baled hay off the side of the bloody road to survive during that dry year. And everyone was buying hay, and hay was sky high, and I just tipped all my cows out on some wheat stubble, and I didn’t buy a bale, and they didn’t let me down, they just powered through.
Red Poll cattle were first imported to Australia by settler colonials in the early 1800s. As a hardy, dual-purpose breed, providing milk with high butterfat and quality beef with good marbling, they soon became popular. Yet along with over 40 additional heritage cattle breeds, Red Poll numbers dropped dramatically with the rise of high-yielding industrial breeds.
Over 10, 000 years of domestication, cattle have adapted to all inhabited continents and are of profound cultural and economic significance to diverse communities. From the 1700s onward, artificial selection consolidated populations into defined breeds. The productivist approach of recent decades grew from the application of quantitative genetics and statistical theory to the principles of heredity. Agribusinesses have invested heavily in livestock breeding programs and marketing campaigns that promote and widely disseminate the genetics of a diminishing number not only of cattle breeds, but also bloodlines.
This is most pronounced in the United States, where the Holstein Association USA calculates that 94 percent of the dairy herd is now constituted by Holsteins. Systematic selection and artificial insemination have allowed for rapid improvement in milk production, yet have substantially decreased the genetic diversity within the breed. In their research into male Holstein lines, Yue Xiang-Peng, Chad Dechow, and Wan-Sheng Liu found that almost all artificial insemination (AI) Holstein bulls worldwide traced their lineage to one of two bulls born in the 1880s. Their lineages extend to two AI bulls born in 1960, from whom 99.84 percent of North American Holstein bulls are today descended. In terms of genetic diversity, these nine million cows are estimated to be equivalent to a herd of fewer than a hundred animals. In addition to the risks posed by such a staggering lack of bloodline diversity, this paradigm has resulted in the extinction of 184 cattle breeds across the globe.
In Australia, countless family-run dairy farms have closed, as the economies of scale required to meet market demands for cheap milk favor large-scale operations. Holsteins supply over 70 percent of Australia’s milk, while beef cattle are dominated by Droughtmasters and Brahmans in the North, and Angus and Herefords in the South. Ten cattle breeds in Australia are now extinct, with another 38 listed as under threat by the Rare Breeds Trust of Australia.
As social constructs, breeding objectives—like breeds themselves—will always be dynamic and contested. Yet the productivist paradigm is concerning not only because of the associated loss of diversity, but for its poor animal welfare outcomes. Selection for milk volume has resulted in Holsteins suffering metabolic and structural problems, increased production disease prevalence, and reduced fertility and longevity. High milk outputs require high feed inputs—including consumption of grain that could be eaten by humans—that increase ecological impacts, while a corollary of the global dissemination of lucrative bloodlines has been the spread of genetic defects and disease. Such harms demonstrate that reducing livestock to unidimensional commodities constitutes a breach of what writer Stephen Budiansky terms the “ancient contract” between livestock and people.
While economic gain remains the industry’s guiding principle, there is growing recognition of the detriments of the productivist approach, with its disaggregation of traits into estimated breeding values (EBVs) and selection indices. Lewis Holloway, in his work on pedigree cattle breeding, echoes the sentiments of many farmers in observing the limitations of genetic evaluation where “data are made and studied, particular forms of knowledge of the animal body are gained, but the totality of the animal is lost.”
Among the heritage farmers I’ve come to know, approaches to breeding vary considerably, but the totality of the animal remains, and productive traits are seldom the top priority. For Greg,
Our breeding criteria is number one: fertility. Second one is temperament, because the last thing you want to be working with is some animal that wants to kill you… The conformation and structure of the animal is number three. And, actually, performance is only number four. So a lot of people just go performance number one, but then you end up with all these mad animals that want to kill you, and you just don’t want that.
While the quality of his beef matters a great deal to Greg, and has been recognized in many carcass competitions, this selection approach means his cows do not exhibit the heavy muscling of the dominant beef breeds. “And I’ve got all my Angus friends, and they all chuck off at me all the time, you know, ‘Oh you’re a dual-purpose breed, you’re not beefy enough’.” He elaborated, “But define what is a beef breed? I see people coming out of the dairy industry, and they’ve had feminine looking cows, and then they come to the beef industry. . .and they want muscle. . . .But there’s a price to muscle. You lose milk, you lose fertility.”
The gendering of beef and dairy cows by these traits reflects prevailing human cultural values, while the industry recognizes the loss of Angus maternal productivity concomitant with productivist forms of genetic improvement. “A big heavy beef cow, she’s gonna either be not in calf, or she’ll kick the calf off, because she doesn’t want to work hard. You know that’s what a fat, lazy beef cow will do,” Greg continued.
Heritage farmers value fertility and mothering ability, but also longevity in their hard-working breeding cows. Modern commercial breeds will rarely reach a decade, whereas heritage breeds commonly calve annually up to their late teens. And when one lives one’s life alongside cattle, temperament matters. Indeed, on family farms, where children grow up with the herd, temperament is often seen to matter most of all. “It’s something we’ve become very proud of,” Greg mused. “They’ve just got a kind eye, you can pick them with your eye, a kindness in there. And my Mum used to talk about kindness in the eye; you can see it in horses, you can see it in cattle. Yeah, and their ears, and how they hold their head and that.”
Farmers make breeding decisions around temperament, conformation, and maternal ability through skilled tactile and visual assessment in conjunction with data from records on longevity and fertility. Yet farmers express concern about selection practices among those who do not possess a “good eye” for cattle. Moreover, rare breeds present their own problems. Economic viability challenges can mean that people on-sell animals that for the health of the population should be culled. Tom, another intergenerational Victorian heritage cattle farmer, worries that “dangerous, cranky animals that would’ve been historically not kept by the breeder are kept purely because they’re rare.” After removing any “cranky” animals in his own herd, Tom’s emotional connections make the additional culling decisions complex. “It’s hard to go through and go ‘Right, well, some of you have to go, I’m sorry, there’s just not enough grass.’ Once you’ve got rid of all the old people in the village, the crazy ones that are causing trouble, you’ve only got the good people left. It’s like, who are you picking? It’s hard, it’s really hard.”
Affective relationships with animals, built through decades of shared adversity, success, and hard work, lend to relationships of reciprocity. Unlike in Europe, where government subsidies reward the conservation efforts of heritage breed farmers, there are no government incentives in Australia. With no systematic cryoconservation programs, or cultural appetite for livestock zoos, the only means of ensuring heritage breed survival is to foster a commercial demand for meat, milk, and hides—ironic as this killing to sustain life may seem. Small genetic pools render inbreeding a perennial risk, while drought, flood, fire, and disease outbreaks threaten localized populations. Economic viability is hampered by consumer reluctance to pay more to cover the costs of raising slower growing heritage breeds in free-range, regenerative systems. Greg, like many heritage breed farmers, relies on off-farm income through his work as a plumber and his wife’s nursing to subsidize their operation. Nonetheless, he will always remain loyal to his Red Polls, who have never let him down, and whose history is so entangled with his own.
An unfinished story
The first time we spoke, I had to prematurely bring my conversation with Greg to an end, as I was late for a meeting. Greg responded, “Feel free to call back again if you want to, because it’s a fairly big story. And it depends how far you want to look into it, but it’s done with a lot of passion.” It is a big story, this story of breeds, bloodlines, and reciprocity. It’s an account of legacies, heritage, and history negotiating daily with the perennial need for adaptation. It’s about selecting and perpetuating bloodlines, building up the herd through killing; about selling cranky cows, lazy cows, in order to breed into the herd fertility, docility, longevity, and the all-important mothering ability. This is also a story of human lineages: cow women and men handing down their bovine bloodlines and breeding knowledge to their children and, in turn, grandchildren. It’s a chronicle of interspecies hope, where love and respect are not lost in the singular pursuit of productivity and profit. And it’s a story that needs to be told and acted on, so its ending isn’t one of homogenous herds and breed extinctions, with biodiversity and bloodlines lost forever.
This research was funded by the Australian Government through the Australian Research Council’s Discovery Project scheme [project number DE200100595].
Catie Gressier is an Australian Research Council (DECRA) Fellow in the anthropology and sociology discipline group at the University of Western Australia. Her research examines foodways, interspecies relations, tourism, and health and illness, in Australia and Botswana. She is an editorial board member of Anthropological Forum, and a former University of Melbourne MacArthur Fellow.
Cite as: Gressier, Catie. 2021. “Bovine Bloodlines.” Anthropology News website, March 1, 2021. DOI: 10.14506/AN.1583