How now brown and white cow
- Malcolm Jack
- 18 March 2015
Iconic Ayrshire cow helps supply region with dairy delicacies including fresh ice cream, cheese and milk
The famous brown and white Ayrshire dairy cow isn't anything like as ubiquitous a sight as it once was, dotted across rolling green Ayrshire pastureland in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Progressively interbred with and usurped by the more productive and thus much more common black and white Holstein cow, even if they're to be commonly found elsewhere in the world from Finland to New Zealand, Australia and Malaysia, they're the rare breed these days in their native land. But don't assume we're soon to see the back of these distinctive bovines.
Originally known as Dunlop and later Cunningham cattle and first recorded on an official basis in the 1870s, the indomitable Ayrshire's predominance in its heyday led to the formation of the Ayrshire Cattle Society in 1877, a body which in the 21st century still endeavours to keep the breed at the forefront of modern dairying. Favoured for their hardiness, efficiency, good temperament and above all superior milk – so good it stands up to blind taste test scrutiny against its rivals – you'll still find certain Ayrshire farmers standing steadfastly by the Ayrshire as a breed.
'Traditionally she has higher components within her milk, higher fat and protein,' says Hugh Woodburn, founder of the Woody's Ice Cream brand and keeper of a large herd of Ayrshires at Killoch Farm near Galston. 'Market research has proven for her milk to have a superior taste to that of the black and white cow,' he adds.
Woodburn began making ice cream approximately 12 years ago, during a crisis for dairy farming in the UK when profits slumped and many farmers were forced to diversify to survive. Producing around fifty different flavours of fresh ice cream in small batches, often bespoke to order, Woody's have become a well-respected and recognised brand in an increasingly competitive ice cream market in Ayrshire and the west of Scotland (see sidebar). The majority of Killoch Farm's milk is still sold to a dairy on a daily basis, but they keep enough back to manufacture about 40-50,000 litres of ice-cream annually. Hugh recently handed over the running of Woody's to his daughter Jill Woodburn, allowing him to concentrate on, ahem, milking the most valuable asset of their business.
'We have all the products on hand,' explains Woodburn, of Woody's ice cream's freshness USP. 'The cows are milked at six o'clock in the morning and it's pasteurised at nine o'clock the same morning and it's ice-cream the next day. There's no transport links, and we eliminate a lot of contamination and heating problems by keeping on farm. Not many ice-cream producers can do an on-farm process like that.'
As owner of Dunlop Dairy, cheesemaker Ann Dorward keeps a herd of thirty Ayrshire cattle at her farm near Stewarton in Ayrshire and similarly finds them to be perfect for her small-scale business, hand-making a range of farmhouse cheeses. Her range includes traditional Ayrshire Dunlop cheddar, which in March 2015 was recognised with PGI (Protected Geographic Indication) status under the EU's Protected Food Name scheme for important heritage foods. 'We're not going for quantity of milk, we're going for quality,' she explains. 'I'm producing the milk just for my cheese, I'm not pushing out every litre to sell to a tanker every day. So we're not looking for fast yield out of these cows. We're also looking for ones that can produce milk off a lower diet,' she continues, 'and that's what the Ayrshires were good for back in the day. Because our farm's a bit higher up here and it's a wee bit less productive than some places, we're looking for a cow that's a little bit hardier.'
For a business of Dunlop Dairy's size, producing only as much cheese as they can sell either direct-to-customer through their own on-farm cheese shop and tearoom, or through select local shops and delis, buying in Ayrshire cattle's milk from another supplier wouldn't even necessarily be an option. 'It's economies of scale these days,' Dorward explains. 'If we're buying in milk, it's coming from a big pool, and it'd be very difficult for us to get small quantities of Ayrshire milk from one farm. So it's cheaper for us to keep our own Ayrshires and work within our own means. Also because they're our own cows and we're doing the work, we know exactly what they're eating and what stage they're all at and everything about them. We've got the whole food chain if you like.'