Kerry cattle are indigenous to Ireland and are one of the oldest European breeds of cattle. They get their name from the county of Kerry where it was widely popular. The Kerry descends from the ancient, fine-boned, black Celtic cattle that occupied this area at the time of Caesar’s invasion of Britain.
According to the Irish Cattle Breeding Federation, the Kerry was one of the most prevalent cattle in Ireland prior to the 17th century, but was unknown outside of its native land. The importation of other cattle breeds and crossbreeding during the 1800s led to a population decline of the breed in Ireland. Kerry cattle were left isolated in the impoverished southwestern regions of Ireland, where their ability to thrive and grow on meager forage under harsh conditions made it an important asset to poor farmers.
Kerry cattle were first imported into the United States in 1818, coming ashore in Pennsylvania. While the breed never became widely popular in the U.S., a small population exists today from re-importations of cattle and semen beginning in the 1960s. The breed is considered globally rare, and the population in North America could help re-establish the breed if disaster struck the larger populations in Ireland and the U.K. North American Kerry breeders work with the Kerry Cattle Society in Ireland, who registers stock, to conserve these rare cattle.
Closely related to Kerry cattle, the Dexter is a small, dual-purpose breed that originated from the same ancestral stock. Through the early 19th century, both Kerry and Dexter cattle were produced from the same herds and were registered in the same herdbook. The taller, heavier animals were registered as Kerry while the shorter, stockier animals were registered as Dexter. Blood-typing has now established that the two breeds are genetically distinct and shouldn’t be crossed with each other.
Kerry cattle are solid black with a small amount of white allowed on the underline. They’re small and lean, with cows averaging 800 pounds and bulls 1,000 pounds. The cattle are fine-boned with delicate heads and upswept, lyre-shaped white horns with black tips. They’re active grazers and browsers, hardy and long-lived, often continuing to be productive milking cattle into their teens.
Kerry cows are robust mothers that have little to no difficulty calving. They produce an average of 5,000 to 7,000 pounds of milk in a lactation period although there are a number of cows capable of yielding over 10,000 pounds. The globules of butterfat in the milk are smaller than those from most dairy breeds, making the milk more easily digestible by people. Kerry milk is also well suited for cheese production. Although a good fit for small farms, the active nature and extreme rarity of Kerry cattle make them best suited for intermediate to experienced cattle farmers.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.