Ivy is one of four milk cows that live with Tanya Daigneault and Don Chapin at Circle Back Farm in Yarmouth Port. As you can see, Ivy's a Jersey.
Her co-cows are Dexters. Before I attended Don and Tanya's talk at the Wellfleet Audubon Sanctuary on Saturday, I didn't know the first thing about either of these breeds. But Don and Tanya taught us a lot, and I can now tell you that Jerseys are bred to be milkers. You can see it in their stance: big bony frames, huge, low hanging udder. It's all about milking and calving, milking and calving. Over and over.
The Dexters, on the other hand, are a dual purpose breed. They're heritage cows—six or seven hundred pounds to Ivy's twelve hundred—and they're good for meat, milk, and even draft work. Originally, they're from Ireland, where they lived in fairly shelter-less mountains. Conditions were rough, which means they learned to be good grazers—they'll eat the weeds along with the grass. They also eat less than a big girl like Ivy—thirty to thirty-five pounds of hay each day as opposed to forty or fifty.
Every consideration is important in a small-scale operation like Don and Tanya's. For the past few years they've been working to open the Cape's one and only micro-dairy—the last dairy on the Cape closed in 1971. They need to finish building their milking parlor before they can get certified, but they think that will happen by June. Once they're licensed to sell, they're hoping to be able to supply forty local families with fresh milk, and eventually maybe even yogurt and cheese.
Right now they have four girls milking—they plan to get a few more, but to keep that number under ten. They're also trying out different management techniques. For instance, until now, they've let calves have all of the mothers' milk until they get to be about three or four months, at which point they start taking some for themselves. Next time, though, they're thinking of taking some milk from the mothers right after they give birth to keep up supply—like a human baby, a newborn calf does not drink all the milk the mother is capable of making, and supply will decrease to meet demand. Sharing milk from the start might keep supply higher.
Above all, Tanya and Don want to be sure they're honoring the animals and the land. They've started producing compost from all of the manure the cows produce and selling it to help cover feed. And with any luck, soon they'll also be feeding their neighbors.