Letter From Iceland
Among the things the Vikings brought to Iceland from Norway were cows.
By now, these are smaller than your average Canadian cow, with the cows reaching about 450 kilograms and the bulls about 600.
The breed has both horned cows and not, and amazingly, these animals can be both brindled and speckled (or mottled).
A well-known saying tells that the best milk comes from a tri-coloured cow.
But these fun facts aside, one of the most unique things about Icelandic cows is that the same animal is used for milk and meat, simply because there is only one breed in Iceland.
Though the cows likely came from many places and were from several breeds 1,000 years ago, isolation has made one breed of them.
And though larger farms breed their best milk cows and separate them from the meat cows, they are essentially the same animal.
Given Icelanders’ love for documents and documentation, it is, perhaps, not so surprising that much is known about the Icelandic cow.
The first cattle farmers associations were organized in Iceland in 1903, and two of these have operated ever since.
Their job is to write down how much each cow, as well as the farms in general, produce of milk, and analyze its amount, fat content and protein.
These associations also kept track of the bulls, and picked the best ones prior to the time of the vets’ visits.
Though the Icelandic cow is a hardy and a gentle animal, farmers have long complained about it.
Early in the 19th century, a few Danish cows were imported with the intent to improve the Icelandic stock.
These cows were much larger than the Icelandic ones, but while some milked better than the native ones, many didn’t.
When the weather was bad and food scarce, the newcomers milked very little compared to Icelandic ones.
Farmers discovered the best cows were derived from an imported bull and an Icelandic cow, but their strength seems to have disappeared with time and surprisingly, no sign of the Danish ones is apparent in Icelandic cows today.
In a PhD study at the Joensuu University of Finland in 1999, Juha Kantanen discovered the Icelandic cow is quite a distant relative of the Danish one and much more closely related to cows from Trondheim in Norway.
In fact, this study shows the Icelandic cow was last a descendent of the Norwegian cow about 1,100 years ago, but the breed left the red Danish cow 3,600 years ago and the black-mottled Danish cow about 4,200 years ago.
Hence, the Danish cows imported in the 19th century appear to have completely disappeared into the Icelandic one.
In the past few decades, farmers have begun, again, to complain about not being allowed to import cows from other places.
Icelandic farmers are now lagging behind those in other northern countries when it comes to productivity and efficiency, says the farmer Elvar Eyvindarsson, who owns a cattle farm in the south of Iceland.
He is particularly worried about this aspect, should the ministry of agriculture allow further import of milk products from Europe.
(Currently, certain milk products can be imported, such as some types of cheese.)
Elvar insists the main difference between the productivity of Danish farmers and Icelandic ones lie in the cows themselves.
At a country-wide farmers’ meeting in 2000, farmers began discussing, yet again, whether to begin importing cow fetuses, but to many people’s surprise, the few women farmers stood up one after another and spoke heartily against the suggestion.
Following that, Búkolla was formed. Búkolla is yet another cow society, but unlike the other ones, Búkolla’s main goal is to secure the future of the Icelandic cow.
Sigrídur Jónsdóttir, farmer in the south of Iceland, is one of the founders.
In a 2001 interview, she noted that polls have shown 80 per cent of the Icelandic nation is against spoiling the pure Icelandic breed.
“Icelandic consumers should, of course, have a say in the matter, no less than farmers,” Sigrídur told an Icelandic magazine.
“This is about democracy and about being an Icelander. We shouldn’t constantly feel lesser because we are Icelanders.
“We are no bigger or better than others, but we live here in the middle of the ocean and must live according to that and must do that with pride and courage.
“We shouldn’t always be trying to be New Yorkers in Iceland.”
But Icelandic farmers keep trying, though.
Very recently Elvar and other cattle farmers in the south suggested foreign embryos be imported for experiments with making the breed more varied.
They hope that with these, each cow could make up to half as much milk.
About two-thirds of the farmers at that particular meeting agreed to ask the ministry of Agriculture to allow this temporarily so scientists can investigate the results.
But whether this will be allowed, remains to be seen.