Most Lancaster County residents don’t raise cows. But sometimes you don’t feel like you’re living among the famous, at least you should know what breed of cattle you’re looking at? The classic black-and-white patchwork signage helps – whether it’s on the giant cow statue you’re taking your out-of-town guests to The Turkey Hill Experience, or the live cows you point out on the way home. Many people who have never farmed a day in their lives may know them as Holsteins. Watch out though. The appearance of some local herds has changed. So let’s tackle some questions that may come up in casual, cattle-interesting conversations.
I seem to be seeing a lot of cows besides Holsteins lately. What gives?
“There’s no doubt that Holsteins are still the most popular dairy breed, not just in Pennsylvania, but in the entire United States,” says Carly Becker, Penn State Extension dairy educator in Lancaster County. “But you’re right in thinking that more people are interbreeding and not necessarily purebreds.”
He says there is a lot of hybridization going on. Consider a form-bred Holstein.
“It would make a smaller, more efficient cow for situations like grazing,” he says. Farmers moving into the organic dairy business may like this, as their cows may be required to graze on pasture at least 120 days a year.
“If you put a Holstein out to pasture, they can do it,” he says. “But often because they are such large animals, they become thin and produce so much milk that sometimes they can’t meet their nutritional needs.”
To recognize these crossbreds, he says, look for those with more meat on their bones than a purebred Holstein. It won’t help the paint much.
“Sometimes they’re brown. Sometimes they’re really dark brown that you can only see when the light hits a certain direction,” he says. “Sometimes they have spots like Holsteins. Sometimes they are all white. It really depends.”
What other common dairy breeds can I see?
These hybrids, mentioned by Becker, should not be confused with the Red and White Holsteins, which are their own breed. You can find them around Lancaster County along with other breeds including Jerseys, Guernseys, Brown Swiss and Milking Shorts.
In particular, the forms appear on farms that once had only Holsteins. Formulas produce a higher fat content, so some farmers add them to the mix to increase the components of the milk combined in their tanks. Shorthorns are often dark in color and often have small spots all over. Many farmers display them at fairs.
“People keep them with their herds,” he says. “But there aren’t whole herds of shorthorns here.”
The same deal often goes for Brown Swiss, though Becker can think of at least a few farms in neighboring states that are exclusively Brown Swiss.
Lisa Graybeal has three or four Brown Swiss on her farm in Peach Bottom along with about 1,600 Holsteins, 820 of which are of milking age. It’s only because his brother likes Brown Switzerland. Graybeal isn’t exactly impressed.
“Brown Swiss are really big, huge animals. I swear… all they do is eat. They just stand in the hole and eat,” says Greybeal. “You would think that these cows – as big and as much as they eat – would give that much milk. They don’t.”
Brown Swiss – often greyish brown with black noses and creamy white mouths – have their aesthetic. “They’re really cute with their floppy ears,” says Becker.
I keep mixing Guernseys and Jerseys. Help?
A typical Jersey will be slightly smaller than a typical Guernsey. Becker says the uniforms have a darker color gradient than the others.
“But the way you can really tell them apart is their eyes,” he says. “(The forms) have these big, bulging eyes and big eyelashes. They almost look like cartoon eyes.”
Guernseys are described as having colors ranging from pale brown to reddish gold. Fun fact: The 2019 World Guernsey Conference was held in Lancaster County.
Mountain cows are adorable. Can I see any of these?
Yes, real-life versions of those fluffy broomstick patterns that appear on everything from socks to cupcakes actually graze Lancaster County. But probably not for any serious business reasons, says Becker.
“I’m not aware of any actual (production) herd…” he says. “I’ve seen them around. But I don’t think they are there for anything other than decoration.”
Is Lancaster County getting a little meatier?
Yes, although dairy still dominates in a county that produces more milk than any other in the state. Graybeal says more dairy farmers are starting to cross-breed some of their dairy cows with beef cows with the intention of selling the offspring for beef. Also, take a look at the dairy and beef statistics in the sidebar accompanying this story.
There are a bunch of black cows out there. Is it safe to assume these are Angus?
No, you’re not, says Tara Felix, a University Park-based beef specialist with Penn State Extension. The most common breed of beef cattle in the country is the black Angus, named after one of the counties in Scotland where the breed traces its lineage. But farmers may need to involve other breeds in the black color scheme.
“Wagyu cattle, Simmental cattle, Maine-Anjou cattle and now Black Herefords (can) all have this signature black skin color,” says Felix. “Black Herefords have a white face and some Simmental calves will have white spots that Angus don’t. But not all. So just having a dark skin color does not make an Angus cow.
Wagyu cattle are a Japanese breed known for some serious meat marbling. They can also get a pretty serious shine to their coat. Wagyu is also famous for its tenderness. Atglen’s Kenneth Umble says that’s true if they’re treated like a proper calf. He used to work with Holsteins, but switched to Wagyu, which he says is in high demand, making it difficult to maintain his herd of about 50 head of cattle.
Stand a black Maine-Anjou next to a black Angus and you can see that the former has a narrower, longer face.
The Black Hereford was not recognized as an official breed until 2003 and was caught in places like Texas and Tennessee. You’re not likely to come across many in Lancaster County. At least not yet. But they are around. Michael Sherman of Montgomery in Lycoming County said he sold at least one Black Hereford bull to a Lancaster County farmer. Sherman is the only Pennsylvania breeder listed on the American Black Hereford Association website. He focused on traditional red Herefords.
“From just changing my skin color, I went from struggling to the local market to where I’m now nationally marketed…” says Sherman. “My bulls go all over the place.”
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Yeah, what’s with the black?
A similar situation exists with the block Simmental, as with the Hereford cross.
“Prior to the 1980s, the more traditional Simmental genetics—CAB—explosion were Red Simmentals,” says Felix. “But now the Black Simmentals are the most dominant.”
CAB stands for Certified Angus Beef, the marketing program that helped make black such a trendy color for cattle. This is a bit of an oversimplification, but basically farmers can get more money if they can stamp their beef with this designation. And they can’t unless they meet 10 specific criteria, including that the animal be predominantly black.
“When you walk into the slaughterhouse, it’s really hard to tell if a calf hidden in black is a black Angus calf or a Simmental. And in fact, the Certified Angus Beef brand applies to all black-skinned cattle,” says Felix. “So back in the day when I was breeding purebred Holsteins, sometimes I’d get a very dark Holstein … (that could go) CAB, if I bred it right.”
I’m still not sure what I’m looking at.
Felix says there is an easy solution.
“If you’re interested, just ask a farmer, ask your local extension agent,” he says. “People are happy to talk about it – excited, actually. People who work in agriculture are very proud of what they do. Just ask the question.”
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