If you’re looking for a heritage cattle breed that will make a good milking cow, don’t overlook the distinctively marked Dutch Belted Cattle. The mild climate and lush grass of Holland have helped make this small nation the source of prime cattle that have influenced breeds around the world. The Holstein-Friesian has quite literally become the very image of a dairy cow. So pervasive is the influence of the black-and-white Holstein that the other breeds of Dutch cattle are scarcely known.
The Lakenvelder, which means sheeted field, was a black or red dairy cow with a broad white belt. These cattle were known in Holland by the 1600s, where their attractive and striking color pattern was a favorite of the wealthy and the nobility. The same color pattern was repeated in other farm animals such as Dutch rabbits and Lakenvelder chickens. Lakenvelder cattle owners treasured their rare animals and so did not cooperate well in maintaining a herd book or exchanging stock. In 1930, mandatory tuberculosis testing and government control of milk production was instituted, both of which were hard on this minority breed. After World War II, only 5 known Lakenvelder herds remained. Soon afterward, the government enacted regulations forbidding the use of bulls other than from three other recognized breeds.
With the development of interest in preserving rare breeds, an association of Lakenvelder breeders has been established. The remaining Lakenvelder cattle were closely related, and only 75 showed an acceptable pattern. The breeders were in desperate need of rejuvenation, so they turned toward the adoptive home of their native cattle — the United States.
The first import of Lakenvelder cattle was made in 1838, by D. H. Haight, who was serving as the U.S. consul to Holland. Two years later, the famous showman P. T. Barnum purchased several Lakenvelders from a member of the Dutch nobility. Billed as “a rare and aristocratic breed,” the cattle traveled on exhibit with Barnum’s circus. Eventually they were placed on his farm in New York, where they proved to be excellent milkers. Additional small imports of Lakenvelders or Dutch Belts were made over the next fifty years. The Dutch Belt cattle population was found mainly in New Jersey and New York until the early twentieth century, when they began to appear in many states.
The Dutch Belted Cattle Association was founded in the 1860s, and the herd book has been kept continuously since then. The members of the association were knowledgeable dairy farmers who actively promoted their breed and encouraged scientific testing. The Dutch Belts performed well in various dairy tests across the United States for many years. In 1925, a Dutch Belt cow produced 17,285 pounds of milk and 634 pounds of butterfat on a standard trial. The USDA yearly production figures for 1930 listed only the Holstein and Brown Swiss ahead of the Dutch Belt, followed by the Ayrshire, Guernsey, and Jersey.
Dutch Belted cattle were recognized by the Dairy Science Association and the USDA as a viable dairy breed. Individual Dutch Belt dairy owners found that their customers enjoyed their specialty milk. Dutch Belt milk contained small fat globules that did not separate as quickly and were easier to digest than other breeds’ milk. The milk also contained high levels of beta carotene and butterfat. In addition, the Dutch Belt had a long lactation. One high-production Dutch Belt cow was milked continuously from her first freshening at two years of age through her twelfth year and beyond.
Unfortunately, the numbers of Dutch Belt cattle were lower than the other dairy breeds. In 1920, the USDA estimated the Dutch Belt population at about 157,000 head. Because even the more numerous breeds would suffer under the Holstein onslaught, the Dutch Belt found it almost impossible to compete in spite of its excellent credentials.
Dedicated individuals such as the O’Neill family in Illinois preserved the breed. More than a curiosity, the Dutch Belted cattle continued to be milked on a few farms. John G. DuPuis founded one large, outstanding herd in the twentieth century. Tragically, this herd was slaughtered in the 1985 dairy buy-out program.
Kenneth and Winifred Hoffman of Bestyet Farm in Illinois own a herd mainly built from the O’Neill herd. The Hoffmans have demonstrated that Dutch Belted cattle are a profitable dairy breed, especially when coupled with grass-based farming practices. The Hoffmans have also employed semen conservation and embryo transfers in preserving the breed.
The Dutch Belt is an exceptional milker that can compete with the Holstein under low-input management. With good management, a cow can produce more than 20,000 pounds of milk with a butterfat range of 3.5 to 5.5 percent, useful for cheese and butter making. The valuable qualities of the milk have been preserved. The fat globules are very small, and the milk is easily digested. Along with its high beta-carotene content, the milk has an excellent flavor.
The Dutch Belt cow weighs 900 to 1,500 pounds and has a well-attached udder, well-placed teats, and a lovely disposition. With her high volume, she is primarily a dairy herd cow, not a home milker. The breed has no special calving difficulties and is especially suited to pasturing. Owners report that the Dutch Belt is intelligent, hardy, and long-lived. Because they remain naturally horned, Dutch Belted steers are striking as oxen teams.
Dutch Belted cattle are either jet black or red. The white belt starts at the back of the shoulder and extends almost to the hips, wrapping entirely around the body. At times there is some white on the lower legs. This belted pattern is a dominant characteristic that is stamped on crossbred offspring.
The ALBC has determined that the global population is critically low for the Dutch Belt. From 1973 – 74 to 1981, an average of only 17 males and 71 females was registered each year. These numbers decreased from 1981 to 1995, when an average of 7 males was registered each year, for a total of 100 males. The average yearly registration of females was 21, for a total of 300. The estimated U.S. population has now fallen below 300. The herd book is now maintained by the ALBC under an agreement whereby the secretary of the Dutch Belt Cattle Association of America delegates register duties.
When the number of purebred breeders fell, it became necessary to initiate a recovery program by using registered bulls on grade Dutch Belted cows. A breeding-up program is also allowed using other cows with Dutch Belted bulls. In 1995, 34 purebred cattle were registered and 80 cattle were under the breeding-up program. Breeding-up herds were established in Canada in the early 1990s. Purebred cows now number about 200 in the United States, and there are still significant numbers of purebred yet unregistered cattle. Because crossbred cattle may also be marked with the characteristic belt, the ALBC warns potential buyers to check pedigree records with care.
Semen from American Dutch Belted bulls has been sent back to Holland for use by the Lakenvelders Breeding Association and has been successful in injecting vitality back into the breed. The American Dutch Belt is actually closer to the original type than those still available in Holland.
Except for a shortage in numbers, there is no reason why the Dutch Belted cow should not flourish. It is a competitive and profitable breed that actually produces a higher-quality milk than the Holstein. The Dutch Belt is a proven producer in low-input or grass-based systems. The breed is built somewhat heavier than other dairy breeds, which holds potential for crossbred beef calf production. The Dutch Belt also transmits a high percentage of color, making the breeding-up program attractive. And the sight of Dutch Belted cattle grazing on a green pasture is nearly incomparable.
Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopaedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available on Amazon.