The Icelandic dairy cow is a small animal of Nordic origin, with the average adult weight being 470 kg for females, with bulls weighing 800-1000 kg. Most of them are polled due to selection against horns for several decades, but small numbers of horned cattle are found on a few farms. They are hardy animals, well adapted to grazing and feeding on a high roughage diet. It is compulsory by law to let the cattle graze for at least 8 weeks in the summer time.
They have been known in Iceland since settlement over 1100 years ago. This is the only dairy cattle breed kept in the country, and the total population of lactating cows is now about 24,000This breed of cattle shows greater variation in color than any other cattle population in Europe. The total number of dairy cattle herds in Iceland has been declining and was approximately 650 as of 2015.
The average annual milk yield is 5700 liters per year, with 4.0 % fat and 3.4 % protein, though some individual cows can give up to 13,000 liters of milk per year, which is excellent for such a small cows. Although the milk is the main product there is also some minor income from beef and other slaughter products as well as hides. Besides milk, other related dairy products include cream, butter, cheeses, yogurt and skyr, a typical Icelandic fresh cheese similar in appearance and taste to yogurt. There is clearly some interest in reviving certain traditional processing methods of milk, such as the case of skyr. Due to some special characteristics of Icelandic milk, it is important not to loose traditional knowledge embedded in the processing of the milk so as to maintain its proper nutritional value.
Icelandic dairy cattle have been kept as a pure breed since the colonization of Iceland between the years 800 and 1000, and there is no evidence importation of other dairy breeds after that time. Only in the late-1900s were breeds like Angus, Galloway and Limousine imported for use in meat production. Import conditions have been very strict, and there has been no crossbreeding with the dairy cow, which is still a genetic legacy, one of the oldest purebreeds in Europe.
Scientifically based information is available indicating that certain milk constituents in Icelandic dairy cows differ from those of milk in other Nordic countries where cattle have been interbred with exotic European breeds, mainly in efforts to increase yield per cow. Thus special protein and fatty-acid characteristics in the milk may contribute to healthiness and it has been suggested that it may give protection against diabetes in children. Moreover, the favorable protein composition of the milk may contribute to better cheese-making qualities. Placing the breed at risk would thus certainly diminish or erode completely such advantages.
International experience shows that such erosion by genetic introgression, crossbreeding or complete breed replacement may take a relatively short period of time. Recent relaxation in the Icelandic legislation relating to imports of genetic material may facilitate such changes and expose the native breeds such as the Icelandic dairy cattle to enhanced exposure to infectious diseases making the situation even worse. In addition, increased imports of dairy products from abroad could increase economic pressure on the commercial utilization of the native heritage breed. It is necessary to promote the importance of this national breed, adapted through centuries to the climatic and natural environment of Iceland.
Image: Bændasamtök Íslands