They were discriminated against by the Holstein-Friesian Association for decades; now, they’re a welcome part of the herd. They’ve been coming to America since the turn of the last century, but they didn’t have their own registry until 1964. And now…Red & Whites are one of the hottest things out there.
“I would say it’s definitely a growing thing,” says Nicole Stout, an executive manager of the Clinton, Wisconsin-based Red & White Dairy Cattle Association.
“There’s a lot out East in the Pennsylvania-Maryland area and there’s also a great amount that are in Wisconsin, Illinois, and Minnesota. But there’s a lot of interest all over the country, as well as internationally”, adding the association adds about 4,000 to the registry annually.
The history of the breed—although it’s more a “breed” in name only since the association accepts red animals that aren’t of Holstein lineage—was detailed painstakingly in an article written by Dr. Larry Specht (pronounced “Spay”), professor emeritus of dairy science at Penn State University. “The Red and White breed has come a long way since it was founded,” writes Specht. “Great strides have been made in both production and type, and the best of them can go head-to-head with their black and white counterparts.”
Specht’s article traces the history of dairy cattle with red hides all the way back to the 13th century when that was reportedly the color of most of the cattle coming into the Netherlands from Central Europe. Up until the 18th century, Dutch paintings showed dairy cattle of many colors, but none were black and white; and a number of reports state that became the dominant color of Dutch cattle when replacement animals had to be imported from Denmark due to flood and disease.
When North American entrepreneurs imported the ancestors of modern Holsteins from the Netherlands in the latter half of the 19th century, Specht writes, they would only allow black and white cattle to be entered into the Herd Book. But the reds were there—beneath the surface. The color is a simple recessive trait; if the sire and dam both carry the gene, there’s a one-in-four chance the offspring will be red. Specht quotes studies that estimate 25% of the imports carried the trait; he adds, “Only a small number of carriers were identified over the hundred-year span from the early importations until they were accepted into the Canadian and American herd books in 1969 and 1970 respectively. Most of the early accounts of red calves being born to black and white parents were never documented. A few stories of ‘reds’ born to elite parents persist over time, much like the ‘folklore’ that is handed down within our own family histories.”
Now, far from being banished from Herd Books and—according to Specht—sometimes slaughtered or sold off, the Red & Whites are prized with many breeders now specializing in them. Says Stout, “A lot of people call and say their kids have an interest in the red breed—you know, they want to show that red calf at their county fair or their 4H show…But I would say a lot of people really do enjoy it; it’s for the show types as well as the interest in it. It’s kind of the last thing that’s been developed so everybody’s interested in conquering that.” As a result, in their tours across the country, they’ve seen everything from black and white herds with a few reds sprinkled in to the opposite.
Although their Book includes some crossbreeds—some of which have as ancestors that are Gelbviehs, Linebacks, and other less abundant dairy breeds—Stout says the great majority of their cattle are 100% Holstein and are registered in the Herd Books of both breeds. “Our Herd Book is actually a little bit different than what the other Herd Books are,” she says. “We record the bloodlines of the animal instead of the amount of registry. So once the person would register their animal, it would be considered 100% registered, even if the dam and the sire weren’t registered.”
It’s what the RWDCA calls an “open” herd book, Specht told us, adding that the association pioneered the idea. “It’s unique in that a new breed could be established with limited resources in this day and age,” he remarks. “The other breeds, most of them were established with Herd Books in the 1870-1880 area.” The Holstein-Friesian Association only began taking Red & White papers in 1970; “They’re loosening up, to some extent, because of competition for business,” Specht says.
He also notes one of Pennsylvania’s leading Red & White herds, Burket Falls in East Freedom, sells a good deal of breeding stock overseas, particularly to Western Europe, where Red & White cattle outnumber black and whites. For domestic dairymen though, he believes, “It’s something a little different. With eight out of nine cows in this country black-and-white, some people would like to have something a little unique. And there are people that truly believe that they are better cattle.”
Many of them were on display last month at the RWDCA’s annual convention; the Association recently moved its headquarters from Crystal Falls, Pennsylvania, to Clinton, Wisconsin, so they scheduled the 2009 meeting just a few miles down the road in Belvidere, Illinois, and part of the program included a visit to the new offices. They also toured a couple of nearby Red & White breeders, Golden Oaks Farms in Wauconda, Illinois and Briar Holsteins in Poplar Grove, Illinois and hosted junior activities, a show and sale with over 100 cattle entered. “We’re starting to have a lot of our own separate shows,” says Stout. “A lot of people are pulling that out and recognizing that as its own breed for showing which makes it fun and a little bit easier for people to identify.”
They’re growing, but they’re still small so the RWDCA has to adjust to offer its members the same services as the long-established breed associations. They’ve got a program that Stout says is intended “to encompass everything similar to the Holstein COMPLETE program” which integrates registration, mating information, classification, pedigrees, genetic reports, and production records, “but obviously on a much smaller scale.” They’re also developing a program that will allow the association to bring a laptop to a farm and process registrations on the spot. “We’re still working out a few of the kinks; but as of right now, it’s definitely an option,” she says.
The Red & White’s classification system is done through Select Sires. “Our system is based on linear traits a little bit differently than how Holstein would do it,” Stout says. “It’s a little bit better for herds that aren’t really the show type. I would say it’s very good for your good cows that you have in the barn that you wouldn’t, maybe, exhibit at all of your shows…the cows that aren’t quite as tall and massive, just hard-working cows which are really important to our breed. It just recognizes them in a different light; that makes it different when you see the final score.”
These have been very difficult times for everybody in the dairy industry, but Stout says that the novelty and new appeal of Red & Whites have helped to insulate their members. “Obviously, everybody’s hurting just a little bit, but I would say our association is faring very well through it,” she says. In the coming year, they’re hoping the growth continues; and she adds, “We’d also like to travel more, and get to know our membership just a little bit better.”