Some people call them the “Canadian breed.” Others might call them “Quebec Jerseys.”
But their official name is Canadienne.
For Bryant Zilke, a producer from Elma, N.Y., Canadienne cattle, a rare breed originating in Quebec, Canada, may hold the key to operating what he hopes is a successful direct-market milk and beef business near Buffalo.
“We want to work with a rare dairy breed like that,” Zilke said.
And rare it is. Most Canadienne cattle are found in Quebec and Ontario, with very few herds in the U.S.
Zilke, who owns 170 acres and is working to establish a grass-based livestock farm, said he admires the breed “for its ability to produce milk and beef on poor quality hay and pasture.” It’s ability to survive and flourish in Canada, where winters can be harsh, might make it an attractive alternative to producers in hard-to-reach areas of northern New York, who long for an animal that’s not only hardy enough to survive the cold, but can also produce.
The history of the Canadienne breed goes back to the days of King Louis XIV — King of France from 1643 to 1715 — who had instructed his French underlings to send great animals from France to the country’s new overseas territory in what is today Quebec.
According to information from The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, the history of the breed in Canada likely preceded the former French monarch, with animals being brought over as early as 1601. Most animals originated from the areas of Normandy and Brittany, France.
According to the conservancy, the breed was shaped by the “rugged environment” of eastern Canada. It was once the dominant dairy breed of eastern Canada until European breeds such as the Guernsey and Jersey were brought over in the 1800s. Even the Canadian government discouraged the use of Canadiennes until it reversed its policy in 1883. Though it flourished for several decades, the conservancy said the breed fell out of favor as the dairy industry changed its emphasis to breeds that could produce more milk.
The average Canadienne cow, according to the conservancy, weighs about 1,100 pounds, while the average bull weighs 1,600 pounds. Milk production averages around 15,000 pounds per lactation, with the milk being about 4.35 percent in butterfat and 3.7 percent protein.
Tom Bombard, who grew up on his grandfather’s dairy farm in Keeseville, N.Y., 80 miles south of Montreal, and currently farms nearly 30 acres of ground near Albany, N.Y., has molded his love of ag history and animals into a venture he hopes will one day pay off in the development of polled Canadienne cattle.
His first foray into Canadienne cattle was 10 years ago, when he traveled to Canada in search of a Canadienne horse for his daughter’s college graduation present. He was staying at a ranch owned by a friend of his, who happened to know someone else that had Canadienne cattle.
“I was actually looking at other breeds of cattle. I just about settled into buying Galloway cattle because of my situation at the time,” Bombard said.
When he first saw some Canadienne cows on a farm, he was impressed not only with their hardiness, but their ability to be a dual-purpose animal. He never got a horse. Instead, he returned with a cow and a bull.
“They seemed just about as hardy as Galloway and I’m a great fan of the dual-purpose and triple-purpose breeds,” he said. “When one market is down,” like dairy, “you can switch into the other one and you don’t have to make another investment into a different breed of cattle.”
Bombard has eight Canadienne cattle along with a couple head of Jerseys and about a dozen horned Dorset sheep.
He’s not a full-time farmer as he still holds a part-time job off the farm in order to pay the bills. But like any farmer, Bombard is in it to make money, and sees his future in marketing polled Canadienne cattle, a process he’s been working on for several years.
“There is becoming a larger market for all polled dairy breeds,” he said.
About seven years ago, he found a producer who had some polled Guernseys. This piqued his interest because he realized the Guernsey’s close relation to the Canadienne breed, and he figured after a few years of breeding with a Canadienne, he could get what would be a considered a pure polled Canadienne — an animal has to be at least 96.33 percent of a particular breed to be considered purebred.
It’s been easier said than done.
“For every generation, you only go up half the fractional value. Half is the first generation. Next is three-quarters” assuming you cross the purebred with a three quarters animal. “It takes many generations,” he said.
With a exception of a pure Canadienne bull and some polled embryos, Bombard said he has no purebred Canadienne cows on the farm. Even though he has the bull and the embryos, getting an embryo technologist to the farm is expensive, not to mention the estrus cycles of the donor and recipient cows have to be correctly synchronized in order to do a successful embryo transfer.
“I’m just waiting for my opportunity and money to buy the 100 percent Canadienne cows,” he said.
And he’s already picked out the name of his first bull: Legacy Farms Premier.
For Zilke, getting some Canadienne cattle is all about maximizing production on his grass-based farm.
“I looked up the information. They are supposed to be a very good grass kind of cow, dual purpose, but more dairy than beef,” Zilke said.
He purchased 20 Canadienne cattle from a farm in Canada this summer and the cattle arrived on his farm in September.
He had to go to Canada simply because there weren’t any cattle available in the U.S. It made the process of getting the cattle more time consuming, with lots of paperwork to fill out and mandatory veterinary inspections.
Along with that, he had to hire a trucking company to get the cattle across the border. The fact that these cattle are so rare created a problem at the border crossing since the border inspector never saw the cattle before. The inspector “couldn’t figure out what kind of cows they were. So they were held up at the border,” he said.
“We had to put a lot of pieces together,” he said. “Once they were inspected, we had a 30-day window to get them across. They had to be a certain size and age. One calf didn’t cross the border. It’s not as simple” as getting them from someone locally who has cows for sale, he said.
Zilke’s goal is to direct-market meat and milk from his cattle in 2014. He has a total of 60 head on the farm, including some Milking Shorthorns and Polled Herefords.
He’s also gotten some Canadienne cattle from another source in the U.S., but he said those cattle were especially aggressive and had to be sent to market. All in all, Zilke has found the animals to be mainly docile and good for his particular situation.
“They can get along with very little assistance in foraged-based programs. We were kind of looking at something that would match our grass production,” he said.
Sarah Bowley, program manager with the SVF, or Swiss Village, Foundation of Newport, R.I., said the foundation recently selected Canadienne cattle for gene preservation. The foundation preserves germplasm — 200 embryos and 3,000 straws of semen — from rare and endangered breeds of food and fiber livestock.
“Being an endangered breed, being one we developed in North America ... It was a breed we wanted to represent in our collection,” Bowley said.
While the overall dairy industry focuses mostly on production, Bombard thinks there is still a place for the smaller breeds like the Canadienne.
“You have to pick the breed that you’re going to like and fits into your situation. Part of the reason why we have so many minor breeds is because of commercial dairy. It’s the get big or get out’ attitude,” he said. “These minor breeds still have a lot to offer in hardiness, genetic diversity and adaptability.”