Keeping Heritage Breeds: Dutch Belted Milking Cows

Mary Lou Shaw just wanted a couple cows for milk and meat, and now she’s helping to save a rare breed. Discover the milk, meat and wonderful temperament of the Dutch Belted milking cow.
By Mary Lou Shaw
January 2013
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These Dutch Belted cows are a dual-purpose breed that provides both milk and meat. The American Livestock Breeds Conservancy lists them as "critical" because their estimated global population is less than 2,000. Our cows stay with their young and are entirely grass-fed.
Photo Courtesy Carlisle Press
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Mary Lou Shaw, author of Growing Local Food (Carlisle Press, 2012), is empowering individuals and communities to grow more of their own food. Her book is a good primer on getting back to a healthier lifestyle with 22 chapters that explore ideas as simple as growing herbs in a pot to information on catching rain water for the garden. The following excerpt on keeping Dutch Belted milking cows is taken from chapter 13, “Keeping Heritage Breed Cows.” 

Buy this book in the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: Growing Local Food.

“What a thrill to enjoy all the benefits of old breeds while helping to save these precious genetics for the future. Raising milk animals is so much easier when we do it the way nature intended—avoiding hormones that force them to produce more milk, and allowing them to be out in the sunshine on pasture. When animals live as nature intended, they stay healthy and we benefit from their nutritious milk and meat. We also hope their descendants will be there to help our descendants survive.”

Keeping Dutch Belted Milking Cows

We bought two cows, not because we knew anything about them, but because we had a pasture and a barn. Homesteading and heritage breed cattle seem to complement each other, so we looked at American Livestock Breeds Conservancy (ALBC) to see what rare breeds were listed. We chose Dutch Belted because they are on the “critical” list, and are good for both milk and meat, and also because their Oreo-cookie appearance is beautiful.

In the dairy world today, Holstein cows have become almost synonymous with dairy cows. Over the past 40 years, they have been bred to double their milk supply while losing other beneficial traits. Likewise, it’s now assumed that beef cattle need to be confined and fed grain to produce good beef. It’s now known that confinement beef not only produces unhealthy fats to eat, but confinement of a large number of animals in one place contaminates our environment. We’re fortunate to live in a rural area where we have the option to return to healthy ways to raise cows—healthy for humans, the cows and the environment. This takes “old-time” genetics. Let me explain:

Dutch Belted cows live to be about 20 years old, and they calve annually from age two through their teens. This is an incredible difference from today’s confinement dairy cow whose average lifespan is just over three years. The sisters we originally bought, Addie and Annie, are now seven and eight years old and should be with us for another twelve years!

It’s fortunate for us, who knew nothing about cows, that old-breed cows don’t have many birthing problems. We knew no better than to be totally delighted to watch them while they had their babies. This is the norm with heritage cows.

The Dutch Belted’s excellent health is another thing I have taken for granted. To avoid mastitis, we do have to milk routinely after they give birth. They produce far more milk than one calf can handle for the first three to four months. After that we milk when we want to (because the calves take the rest)—after all, we’re a homestead and not a dairy.

The calves have also been problem-free, but because the calves nurse from their mothers it’s easy to avoid health problems like scours. However, Dutch Belted also demonstrate good health at dairies where cows and calves must be separated.

These cows are known for their good dispositions. Now, I’ve never dealt with an ornery cow, but I’ve heard that they can be mean. Instead, we compare our cows to the horses, and therefore appreciate the cows’ incredible patience. We also find them easy to work into new routines and enjoy their trust and response to kindness.

We appreciate our cows’ economical size. Dry years have made both pasture and hay precious commodities. Our cows’ smaller size is important so that we don’t have to feed more in order to have them remain healthy. They eat only grass or hay and we receive excellent milk and meat.

One may assume that a cow knows how to graze, and indeed, heritage cattle wouldn’t have survived otherwise. Many modern confinement cows have lost the ability to graze. By having our cows go to the grass rather than having the grass brought to them, our work and expenses are reduced.

We didn’t understand at first that these cows would mean such an abundance of excellent food for us. How wonderful it is to have raw milk without antibiotics or hormones. This allows us to have cheese, yogurt, butter and ice cream of the same excellent quality. The steers are slaughtered at nine months (a natural time for the mothers to wean them), and this becomes our grass- and milk-fed “baby beef.” This meat is incredibly tender and flavorful. Studies show that grass-fed beef is much healthier to eat than meat that comes from confinement lots.

People express surprise that we treat our animals with such affection and respect and yet eat the males, but we have come to understand that the breed will not be saved unless they are eaten. This dichotomy is understood when you see a pasture filled with steers that are “pets” but leave no genetics for the future. Today, there are only about 200 Dutch Belted cows of breeding age in the United States. We hope to leave behind a few more for the next generations.

The above characteristics combine to make heritage breed cows economical to keep. Even though they don’t produce the Holstein’s quantity of milk, we save money because there are fewer vet bills, we feed no grain, the cows calve annually, and they live long. These benefits prove important not only for the homesteader, but for grazing dairies that are “breeding up” their herd to be Dutch Belted.

We came to understand the breeding-up program when we originally tried to buy the rare Dutch Belted cows. To bring them back from close-to-extinction, this program allows milk cows to be crossed with full-blooded Dutch Belted bulls. Every female offspring is registered, and the fifth generation (F-5) is 96.88% Dutch Belted and registered as full-blooded. Although we haven’t gotten there yet, we are enjoying all the benefits of having an old-time breed.

We wanted a couple cows for milk and meat, and now we’re talking about helping to save a rare breed. How did this happen? I guess we fell in love with these sweet and beautiful animals and would like to leave a few more behind to help both cows and people survive. How fortunate for us that they also give us such highly nutritious and delicious food.

Read more: Preserve your summer harvest by freezing, canning, drying and other winter storage means  in Preserving Food for Winter Storage.


This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from Growing Local Food by Mary Lou Shaw and published by Carlisle Press, 2012. Buy this book from our store: Growing Local Food.


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