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PHOTO: Hope Refuge Farm
Many small farmers and homesteaders yearn for the bucolic sight of a beloved cow lazily grazing through bright-green pastures, but because of limited land and small-scale resources, they just can’t justify including cattle on the farm. These agrarians usually find themselves searching through listings of small and miniature breeds, relishing the discovery that the beasts that populate feed lots and large-scale cattle farms don’t enjoy firm footholds in the history of farming. Angus-sized cows are, in fact, relatively recent additions to the landscape, bred to extreme sizes—and carrying a matching appetite for acreage—to maximize meat yields. But small farmers and homesteaders don’t need maximum meat yields; they need beef for the freezer and a little bit of milk in the morning bowl of cereal.
Maybe a cow—something small, nothing crazy—actually can enjoy a place on the small farm. And this of course raises the all-important question: Which cow?
The Small-Scale Dairy Cow
If you’re a small-scale farmer or homesteader asking yourself this question, you’ve likely already read extensively about Dexters, the smallest natural breed of cow and an Irish workhorse that’s touted as both good milker and provider of superior-flavored meat. As an owner of a small herd of Dexters, I’ll confirm these Emerald Isle beauties do very well in the freezer but must caution against over expectations of their dairy potential.
Both physically and temperamentally, Dexters are not ideal milkers—they typically don’t enjoy milking, and the average yield reflects the common displeasure. If it’s a bucket of creamy, farm-fresh milk you’re after, but you only have room for a Dexter-sized cow, you should know about a curious little crossbreed, the Belfair.
First bred by Tracy Teed of Washington state as the first dual-purpose mini developed in America, the Belfair, aka Irish Jersey, is a straight 50-percent cross between a small Irish Dexter and a Jersey. A confusing second term—Belmont—sometimes gets tossed into the mix; this name refers to a 75/25 mix, with either breed contributing the genetic bulk.
The twofold idea is straightforward: Increase the Dexter’s dairy abilities by breeding with a revered milker, and add some quality muscle to the Jersey’s spindly frame. (Dairy calves are typically used to produce veal, as the breeds don’t beef up in an economically viable way.) The Belfair crossbreed is special, because a Dexter, with her small frame, can’t deliver calves of large breeds without risking catastrophic injury; Jersey calves are notably smaller than those of an Angus or Hereford, typically weighing somewhere in the 50-pound range at birth. Further goals, as stated by the developing breeder, include good temperament in both sexes (Jersey bulls tend to be aggressive), small size, desirable udder conformation and a good feed conversion rate.
And it worked! The Belfair is a docile breed, with even bulls exhibiting little to no aggression—in fact, for cash-strapped farms unable to invest in fencing, Belfairs reportedly adapt well to tethering. The Belfair’s udder conformation is considered the best among small dairy cows, and milk production greatly increases from a Dexter’s daily yield. Where the latter tops out at about 1½ gallons per day, a Belfair can produce double that in high-protein, high-butterfat milk.
A Good Meat Producer, Too!
Meat-wise, a Belfair looks like a hefty Jersey, beefing up quickly for sale at the four-month mark. The cows are small in size, true minis, and this diminutive size translates to a conservative appetite: A mini cow requires only 1/2 acre per head, and with the efficient Dexter in the mix—the small breed was once known as the “poor man’s cow” for its ability to put on weight even on inferior pasture—Belfairs don’t require fields of carefully maintained legumes to thrive.
Belfairs conform to a Jersey’s general appearance (this is true for Belmonts too, regardless of genetics distribution), but maybe not the dairy cow you’ve come to recognize. Early Jerseys came in a variety of colors, with darker hues once enjoying preference. Belfairs are most commonly black, and browns ranging from mahogany to dun are often seen. Occasionally, a calf will be born pinto, and most have some white on the tail or a starred forehead. Both sexes of Belfair are horned.
Belfairs are registrable with the American Miniature Jersey Association and Registry , where the Foundation stock is limited to 42 inches tall or shorter at three years of age; cows 42 to 46 inches tall are classified as mid-sized. Furthermore, the cows may be listed with the Belfair Miniature Cattle Registry and the International Miniature Cattle Breeder’s Society and Registry, where the breed is officially listed as Belmont.