'Cream of the crop' - red-and-white dairy cows

How now red cow? That doesn't sound quite right. As any self-respecting dairyman knows, most Holsteins are black and white. But the small number of red-and-white holsteins are churning up an increasing amount of interest from farmers and breeders alike.

Everyone, it seems, wants to milk a cow of a different color.

For one thing, American farmers are looking on the red-and-white holsteins as a sort of bovine status symbol, says John Carpenter, office manager of the Red and White Dairy Cattle Association. They aren't better cows than the black-and-white ones, but having a red and white sets apart a farmer's herd from his neighbor's.

Meanwhile, overseas interest is growing too. Many foreign cattle are red and white. And many European and South American breeders come to the United States for high-quality breeding cattle. They can purchase red-and-white Holstein bulls here, ship them back home, breed them with other red-and-white cattle, and still keep their herds color-coordinated. Consequently, the reds are becoming an increasingly popular export item.

If times are looking up for red holsteins, however, it wasn't so long ago that they were considered freaks. Before the Red and White Dairy Cattle Association came into being in 1964, the official Holstein Association of America would not even register the reds.

The red and white association, however, has helped focus attention on the worth of the ruddy beasts. And farmers are finding out that there's money in color differences.

Since they are so rare, a red calf can easily fetch a price double to a black calf of equal quality. Prices of the reds can range from $800 to $1,600, Mr. Carpenter says.

At the most recent Red and White Dairy Cattle Association sale, the top red calf was sold for a whopping $4,800.

The red-and-white beasts are not about to become the ''new'' American dairy cow, Mr. Carpenter says. But for the last six years the number of animals registered with the red and white association has increased a hefty 15 percent annually.

''There seems to be no end to the demand for the red-and-white cattle,'' Carpenter says. ''It's a very sound area to get into.''

That is just what Robert Kentfield, a dairy farmer in eastern Massachusetts, is doing. He first became interested in the red Holsteins after several of his cows gave birth to red-and-white calves.

Although Mr. Kentfield has only 10 reds in his herd of 225, he looks upon them as an investment - a second savings account, so to speak. By investing now, he is trying to get into the red market before the bovine beasts become extremely popular. When he does decide to sell, Kentfield could realize a good profit.

Despite all the attention being showered on red-and-white Holsteins, there are some drawbacks for farmers wanting to buy or breed them.

Besides their high purchase price, Kentfield has found that his red holsteins do not produce as much milk as their black counterparts. Although there is no technical difference in their genetic makeup, red Holsteins have not been bred for high milk production to the extent that black Holsteins have.

Next time you're in the country, just look for the red cow with four white feet, a white belly, and a white switch on its tail.

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