'They're small but mighty'
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Rusty Bittermann began his search for Kerry cattle about five years ago and quickly realized how hard they were to find because there are so few of them left. Now he's part of an effort to protect the breed and make sure they don't disappear entirely. (Brittany Spencer/CBC)

When Rusty Bittermann first thought of bringing a couple new cows to his farm in Shamrock, P.E.I., five years ago, he had no idea what a journey it would become.

Bittermann runs Rustaret Farm with his wife Margaret McCallum and together, they’ve created a home for a number of heritage breeds of livestock including sheep and cows.

He said they were in search of a dairy cow to produce milk for their farm and after doing some research, had their sights set on Kerry cattle.

“A breed that had been bred across centuries, indeed millennia in Ireland to be small, to be able to provide milk for a household,” he said

“All the things we were looking for in a cow seemed to be in the Kerry.”

But when it came to actually finding one, Bittermann said it seemed they were out of luck.

He contacted farmers in Nova Scotia, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, but none had any Kerries for sale.

Kerry cattle are a rare breed of dairy cows originally found in Ireland and one of the oldest breeds of European cattle surviving today. But the population of Kerry cattle around the world is dwindling and Bittermann said the breed is at risk of disappearing.

He said there are less than 100 breeding females in all of North America and only about 300 in Ireland.

“This began as a search for a good family cow for ourselves and it’s become a bigger project,” Bitterman said.

“As we became involved in that search we came to realize that if people didn’t act to protect the breed it wasn’t going to be there.”

Now, he’s playing a key role in the effort to protect them.

‘They’re home safe’

Kerry cattle are a bit shorter than your average dairy cow, like a Holstein. They’re known for their black hair and horns.

They can also thrive on small pastures, producing milk that’s high in butterfat and good for cheeses and yogurts.

Bittermann said his luck changed when a farm in Alberta offered to send Kerries to P.E.I. and his herd started to grow from there.

“It’s gone from looking for a cow to serve our needs to realizing that we probably should step up and play a role in doing something bigger,” he said.

The most recent additions to the farm are cows Alice and Abbey. They arrived in late November after Bittermann got a call saying they were on a farm in Saskatchewan and needed an immediate home because of drought conditions in Western Canada.

“So we said yes, of course and it’s history from there,” Bitterman said.

He said P.E.I. offers an ideal place for this breed of cattle to thrive because climate conditions can be similar to those in Ireland and the U.K.

“They’ll be here for life, they’re home safe,” he said.

Breed almost disappeared in Canada

Rebecca Lange, chair of Heritage Livestock Canada, said Kerry cattle are one of the oldest breeds of dairy cows in the world, but they don’t produce as much milk as more contemporary dairy cows like Holsteins. Over time, their numbers started to dwindle.

“Kerries are critical in status on our conservation list,” Lange said, adding there are only about 20 of the cows in Canada.

She said Kerry cattle can survive on less food, can thrive in more diverse climates and leave a lower carbon footprint than other cattle breeds. Which is why protecting heritage breeds like Kerries is important to pass along some of those traits to future generations, she said.

“They offer genetic diversity to what we’ve got at the moment,” she said. “They certainly offer traits that have almost disappeared in some other breeds so I think they’re important for that too,” she said.

Lange said there are only four farmers across the country who are keeping or breeding Kerry cattle right now.

“If it hadn’t been for this little concentration of breeders that there are at the moment, they would disappear. So who’s got them now, they’re extremely important to their survival here.”

‘We need these small mom and pop farms’

Bittermann’s herd has now grown to eight mature Kerry females and three Kerry bulls, along with a few calves born on the farm over the past few years.

One of the people helping Bittermann along the way has been breeder and secretary of the American Kerry Cattle Association, Jody Jess.

She breeds Kerry cattle in Massachusetts and is in the process of starting her own small dairy operation with her Kerries. She said she connected with Bittermann through Heritage Livestock Canada and in 2015, sent one of her Kerry bulls to P.E.I. to help him grow the population here.

She said if it wasn’t for farmers like the Bittermanns, the future of the breed in Canada would be in jeopardy.

“It helps the breed because if there’s no numbers they’re going to go extinct,” she said. “We need these small mom and pop farms … that’s what’s going to save the heritage breeds.”

Jess said she’s also seen an increase in the number of people keeping hobby farms or homesteading in the U.S., and she hopes demand for Kerry cattle follows as a result.

“They’re small but mighty,” she said.

“I would love to see every dairy put a few Kerries in,” she said.

Calls for Kerries already coming in

Bittermann said in addition to the Kerries there are two other heritage breeds at Rusaret Farm — Belted Galloways and American Milking Devons. He said his focus on preserving heritage breeds is also an effort to preserve historical farming practices, including those that can be achieved on a small scale.

He said he’s already getting inquiries from other small farms interested in buying Kerry cattle as well. One of his dreams is to help young farmers get their start and he thinks the Kerries could be a good way to do that.

“One of my dreams with this farm and what we’re doing is that we can perhaps help facilitate young people to get the type of stock they need to get started on a small farm,” he said.

He said moving forward he will continue working with Heritage Livestock Canada and explore things like embryo transplants from his Kerry cows to help boost population numbers in other parts of the country.

“If these die out that’s it,” he said

“It’s the heritage of not just centuries but millennia that would be gone forever and it just seems to us unconscionable to let that happen on our watch,” Bittermann said.

For now though, he’s going to let his cows enjoy their time here on their new pasture happy to know he’s doing his part to secure a future for Kerries on P.E.I. — and around the world.

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