Thursday, November 17, 2005

How Now Horned Cow?

See the cow in this photo?

Assemblyman Bob Reilly poses with his Kerry bull at the Shaker Farm in Colonie.
(Cindy Schultz / Times Union)

Well, back when I was living upstate, a couple of my co-workers and I would often drive past this cow (and a couple of his cow buddies) and often the discussion would evolve into wondering (A) What the hell were they doing in that field since there wasn't really an owner-type residence in sight and (B) Would it be possible to ride one of them. We also used to affectionately refer to these cows as yaks. We knew they weren't yaks, but we also knew that these weren't you're average cows, plus yak is fun to say.

So, question (A) has been resolved thanks to the attached article. Question (B) on the other hand is not discussed in the article, but I once did try to solve that mystery without the assistance of the media.

After a night of boozing -- a lot of boozing -- someone brought up the stupid yaks. We decided that the time was perfect for riding one of those fuckers. Miraculously, there was a non-drinker that night, so a few of us piled into a car in search of cowboy dreams.

We get to the yak field and I start to realize that this is a stupid idea. The yaks are way bigger up close then they appear when driving by them at 40 MPH. Also, the horns are long. And pointy. I can only imagine a trip to either the hospital, the local holding cell or both.

Nevertheless, I decide that we've motivated to do this deed, so there is no backing out. The field is surrounded by an electric fence. I touch the fence quickly to see if it is on. A quick tap. Nothing. Another quick tap. Nothing again. I hit it a third time and ZAP! It's on. That shit hurts. My arm was numb and tingly feeling for the rest of the night. So, from that little lesson I decided that the only way to get to the cows was over the fence with no contact. I do a drunken head first dive over the fence, hit the ground and somersault up to my feet.

Now I hate to have an anti-climatic ending here, but upon entering the cow side of the fence the riding idea died right out. The cow was about two strides away from me. Now I'm no animal psychologist, but I was getting a pretty strong vibe from looking into those big cow eyes that if I got any closer Either that or I'm just a good old fashioned chicken shit.

After a brief staredown with the cow I flung my ass back over the fence, rode home and continued partying with my electric fence-numbed arm. So, as it turns out, our question (B) wasn't solved as we would have liked.

Anyway, I'm glad someone wrote this article so I now know a little bit more about the cows/yaks, plus it triggered some relaxing memories about how retarded I used to be (and sometimes still am as evidenced by my antics last Friday night -- man was I drunk).

From the November 16, 2005 Times Union

Tending to his small herd, lawmaker aids efforts to preserve Irish-native Kerry cows

By PAUL GRONDAHL, Staff writer
First published: Wednesday, November 16, 2005

COLONIE, N.Y. -- Assemblyman Bob Reilly has taken on plenty of battles in his political career. But nothing prepared Reilly for his quixotic quest to help preserve a beleaguered heritage breed of cow.

The lawmaker's passion is Kerry cattle, one of the oldest domesticated breeds. It probably descended from the Celtic Shorthorn and was brought to Ireland around 2,000 B.C.

"I see the Kerry cow as a metaphor for the small family farm in America," Reilly says.

"I've made it my mission to try to keep Kerry cattle from going out of business and the way of the small family farm," he adds as he watches his 4-year-old bull, named Kerry, graze in the wan November sunshine in a pasture at the Shaker Heritage Society farm. The plot is sandwiched between Albany International Airport, the Ann Lee Nursing Home and the old Heritage Park baseball stadium.

On his way into work at his Assembly office, Reilly drives from his suburban home a few miles away in Colonie to drop off hay and replenish the water.

Kerry, a smallish, jet-black bull, shares the pasture with a large, white and black-spotted Holstein ox named Peter, who's owned by another farmer.

"By fall, there's not much grass left in the pasture and these two big fellas get mighty hungry," Reilly says.

The assemblyman was preparing to have the pair of cattle transported this week for the winter to a dairy farm in Schoharie County that has indoor barn facilities.

"What Bob's doing here is very important," says Starlyn D'Angelo, executive director of the Shaker Heritage Society.

"We rely on Bob to take care of the cows because we don't have the staff to do it," she says. "The animals add to the historical ambience and enhance our interpretation of the Shaker site. Visitors always stop to watch them grazing in the field. They're beautiful and the kids love them."

Reilly, a Democrat who represents Colonie in the 109th Assembly District, is a former president of the Shaker Heritage Society. The former Albany County legislator retired from the state Department of Education where he ran the public broadcasting office, before winning an Assembly seat last year.

Shakers actively farmed on the Colonie site from the late-18th century until 1924. The decline in their agrarian fortunes mirrored the demise of the Kerry cow.

Reilly took a shine to the plucky little bovine during annual trips to Ireland for golf and sightseeing. Those vacations carried him through Killarney, County Kerry, and the headquarters of the Kerry Cattle Society.

There he met the society's secretary, G.R. Hilliard, the world's foremost expert on the breed and a one-woman global booster for Ireland's native dairy breed.

"She's become my guru," Reilly says.

She convinced Reilly that becoming a Kerry cattle breeder in the heart of suburbia was doable, and not the domain of Saint Jude -- patron saint of lost causes.

Reilly, 65, the son of a steamfitter whose roots are in County Waterford, grew up with five siblings on Partridge Street in Albany's Pine Hills neighborhood.

He's drawn to the underdog.

The Kerry cow was imported to the U.S. in 1818 and grew in popularity through the 1920s. It later fell out of favor to higher-producing Holstein dairy cows.

A Kerry cow produces about 7,000 pounds of milk a year, compared to about 20,000 pounds for a Holstein. From a purely economic standpoint, the Kerry didn't stand a chance.

Only about 200 Kerry cattle remained worldwide in 1983. With the efforts of the Kerry Cattle Society, about 500 registered Kerry cattle exist worldwide today -- about 50 of which are in the U.S.

Five of the Kerry cattle belong to Reilly, who keeps his other four on a 1,000-head Holstein dairy farm owned by relatives in Steuben County.

The accidental cattle rancher got involved with the Kerry heritage breed six years ago. It wasn't easy.

Reilly bought his first Kerry in Alberta, Canada, and shipped it 3,000 miles. It took nearly a year to import Kerry semen from Ireland.

His first foray into breeding resulted in three Kerry cows: one died, one doesn't calf and one is now pregnant. The other two were bulls.

"I've stopped counting how much this has cost me," Reilly says. "What's important is preserving genetic diversity. I prefer the small, family farms of Ireland to American agribusiness."

Reilly believes preserving heritage cattle breeds like the Kerry also amount to an insurance policy against hoof-and-mouth and other diseases that spread rapidly through huge, highly automated dairy and beef operations.

Reilly looks the part of a gentleman farmer one recent afternoon, with his Brittany spaniel, Bud, at his side. He stops to feed grain to his cow and to slip a rope halter around Kerry's horned head.

This takes some doing -- the 180-pound legislator dances as Kerry, the balky bull, feints and dodges.

Eventually, Reilly lassos the recalcitrant bovine for a photo.

"I think he's a beautiful animal," Reilly says. "You have to love heritage breeds to go to all this trouble."

Paul Grondahl can be reached at 454-5623 or by e-mail at

Man, that was a long post ...


Kenneth Walsh said...

Yakety yak (don't talk back)

(or something)

lz said...

Hey, I like saying "yak" too. Kind of like someone I know likes to say "amalgamated."

Anonymous said...

Good thing the drunks fled before getting gored~could have been an ugly scene. Back in college, I saw a drunk guy get stomped to bits while trying to tip a cow. Hey, you never know who is reading your posts...

Starlyn D'Angelo,
Executive Director
Shaker Heritage Society (home of Bob's ox)