1. Size, not too big - around 4 feet at the hips and under 1000 lbs
2. Good grazing ability
3. Maintenance of body condition with no supplements fed
4. Milk yield - 5000+ pounds per lactation
5. Appropriate fat globules for making quality cheese
6. Available stock (big enough gene pool)
7. Docile temperament
8. Easy calving
9. Good feet
10. Appearance we enjoy
So far we've looked at miniature Jerseys and Kerry cattle. Mini Jerseys struck me as a scam. The breeder we visited had a herd of regular sized Jersey cows which he bred to a tiny bull. I would have been willing to bet money that the bull was a dwarf. As in humans, dwarfism in cattle causes the skeleton to form improperly and it is most noticeable in the long bones where orderly laying down of layer upon layer of bone cells is required for a "normal" appearance. The big problem with this mutation is that it is a dominant trait and when a fetus receives two copies of the mutation they spontaneously abort. Basing a herd of cows on dwarf genes is a recipe for constant frustration and heartbreak.
The fact that this breeder tried to sell us cows that I considered defective for far more than a normal Jersey would ever fetch turned me off to his operation in particular and mini Jerseys in general.
The fat composition of Jersey milk is also not ideal for making aged cheeses as we plan to do. Their fat globules are large and cream off quite quickly. During the make process getting a blob of too much fat in one section of the cheese body can cause off flavors and worse. People do make very good cheese from Jersey milk, but they have to skim it some and watch it very carefully to ensure proper mixing during the manufacture.
So after this disappointing experience we shifted our sights to another breed - Kerry cattle. Kerry cattle are an Irish breed native to the southwest of Ireland. They're sometimes called the Irish dairy breed. They are small, roughly 4 feet at the height of their hips, thrifty, and scarce. There are currently only about 60 female Kerrys in the US. There are a few devoted breeders trying to build up a viable population from this small base, a few of whom happen to be in NY. Today we went to see a few of them and talk with one of said breeders. Kerrys meet most of our criteria, and as far as cheese making goes they have a better composition than most other breeds of cattle. Their scarcity is both a turn-off and exciting.
On the one hand there are few individual animals to pick from (virtually none in fact), we will have to take what we can get. I have some concern about in-breeding depression of vigor (though this can potentially be offset to some degree by importing semen from Ireland).
I'm also mildly concerned about milk yield since the few that are currently milked only provide about 5000 pound per lactation. For comparison's sake an Holstein will produce 3 times that amount.
On the other hand by throwing ourselves into Kerrys we could play an active role in maintaining a distinct genetic line of cattle. Within a few years we could play a major role in the Kerry cattle world. There could be very good publicity from this as well as marketing opportunities as providers of breeding stock once our herd grows in size.
We are currently undecided about what to go for. I have many more thoughts but am now out of time. There will be more thoughts on cows to come. Stay tuned.