And he's got small cows
And she's got small cows
But we've got the smallest cows of them all

—AC/DC, unreleased early demo

The dairy cow is a formidable docile beast. Descended from the truly formidable but long extinct aurochs, she is the biggest thing in the barnyard. Queen of the farm, so to speak.

In a world where the black and white Holstein is seen as the quintessential cow—the sort Plato would stock in his Realm of Being—there are hundreds of breeds (over 50 in the United States). One thing they have in common is that they have been bred, over time, to be big. More meat and more milk capacity. (Of course they are still just little sisters to the large, aggressive aurochs that could be as tall as 2 m—six and a half feet—at the shoulder.) Calling someone a cow is not an insult meaning the person is puny.

Then again, in a world of diverse environments and pressures (as well as human intervention), there have evolved a spectacular variety of species and subspecies of life.

For instance, in India it evolved a three foot tall cow.

Many moos: India's cows
India, a nation well known for its reverence for the cow (at least among its majority Hindu population), has 26 (or 28) distinct bovine breeds. But that only accounts for around 18% of its cattle population. The rest are referred to as "nondescript." Less distinct and more like variations on a better defined theme, these cows are found in smaller pockets of local populations ("herds"), sometimes geographically isolated from other breeds. These smaller groups, with their smaller gene pools, have gained local adaptations due to local environmental pressure. While this gives them aspects of uniqueness...they are still "nondescript."

There is a danger, however. These are relatively small groups with their variant traits and are just the sort of herd that could die out, either through attrition, disease, or cross-breeding—India instituted strong programs to encourage crossbreeding of cattle in the 1950s. This leads to more standard homogenized breeds that are of larger size and better able to produce meat and milk. By 1977, almost half of the cattle in the state of Kerala were crossbred. It's largely a matter of economics, since these smaller herds of local varieties tend to be smaller and produce lower quantities of milk. On the other hand, these varieties have other qualities that make them ideal for their environments.

And, yes, this smallest cow is definitely endangered.

Out little friend the Vechur cow is named for the area where it is found in the southern part of the state of Kerala (which is located in the southwestern part of the Indian Peninsula). The area gets large amounts of rainfall (about 290-305 cm/114-120 inches—compare to America's Dairlyand Wisconsin's average annual rainfall of about 78 cm/31 inches), alternating between seasonal monsoons and long dry periods. It is hot and humid, the average temperature ranging from 23°-35° C/73°-95° F (a bit warmer than Wisconsin in summer—but WAY warmer than a Midwestern Winter). This produces plenty of lush, green vegetation. Or as the cow might call it: dinner.

An important feature that led to the Vechur cow are the many waterways in the area that serve as a key means of travel. These barriers allowed the population of cattle to adapt with minimal introduction of outside genetic material. Strong and sturdy, the bulls are helpful as plow animals. Weighing less than the typical beast of burden is also an advantage in working the often soft and marshy soil. The size and low feed requirements make them ideal as a family cow. Smaller amounts of land are needed to sustain the cows, which produce (relative to their size) more milk. Again, less economic value in a marketplace, but of great value to its owners. (Interestingly, the fat globules in the milk are smaller than in most cattle, making Vechur milk easier to digest. While that could be seen as a marketing asset, it seems absurd to think these small cows could be used in any sort of mass production.)

One of the advantages to having a localized, somewhat isolated population is that it has resulted in nature building a cow that is highly resistant to disease (in particular foot and mouth disease...didn't this used to be called hoof and mouth?). This makes them hardier than some of the other cattle introduced from outside without these important adaptations.

The little cows have been a prized possession in the area for decades (or longer). It was a custom to give one as a wedding gift to daughters. The milk is also thought by some to have special medicinal qualities and has been used in ayurvedic medicine. Um, okay. Still kinda cool.

Measuring up! or 'How low can you go?'
Or, as the alleged comedian opened, "I once had a small cow..." only to be begged on by the pretend audience with "How small was it?" But I digress.

Mrs. cow:
Height: 81 to 91 cm (32 to 36 inches)
Weight: 95 to 150 kg (210 to 330 pounds)

Mr. cow:
Height: 83 to 105 cm (33 to 43 inches)
Weight: 130 to 200 kg (287 to 441 pounds)

That's some little cow! But is it really the smallest kind of cow? Well, look at Dexter cattle, the smallest natural European breed:

"Dee Dee":
Height: 91 to 106 cm (36 to 42 inches)
Weight: not more than 340 kg (750 pounds)

Height: 96 to 112 cm (38 to 44 inches)
Weight: not more than 454 kg (1000 pounds)

Vechur wins!

In late 2004, another little cow was discovered in India (again in Kerala). This time it was one that was already thought extinct. The High Range dwarf is intermediate in size between the Vechur and the Dexter. Only forty of these animals were identified from a single herd of 120 (all owned by the same family). It is hoped that this rare breed will be saved from the edge of extinction as is being done with the Vechur. Yes! They are saving the cow. More later, but first, let's "see" what they look like.

"...One end is moo, the other, milk"
Is that all there is? Two horns, a tail, & flies? Not very evocative. What does the little Vechur look like? We investigate.

Seeing a picture of the Vechur cow doesn't immediately conjure up any questions about 'what's going on here?' It looks similar to most varieties of the bovine ilk. In fact, outside of a personal meeting, the only way to know something is odd in cowtown is to see it next to something. Or someone—to see a full grown adult cow coming only halfway up a full grown adult human is a bit strange. The first instinct is to assume it's a calf...until you see the dog-sized calf next to its mother.

Vechurs are colored from light red to black, sometimes white or solid grey. They have a somewhat narrow face topped with thin and nearly nonexistent horns. They have a long tail (relatively speaking) that nearly reaches the ground—because, as Shakespeare might've observed, "A cow by any other name would still swat at flies." Like many cows, particularly those in India, they have a small dewlap—the loose skin that hangs from the animal's throat. And—especially indicative of Indian cattle—they have a small hump which is more obvious in the male. (The wild aurochs diverged mainly along two lines: the humped variety, common to Asia, and the non-humped that spread in Europe. Crossbreeding over the years, has understandably combined and blurred some of the boundaries.)

Screw the whales, save the cows!
Some of the reasons have already been given for why the little cow is part of a program to save it from extinction: its genetic diversity, resistance to disease, and usefulness as a family cow, particularly in areas without large tracts of pasture land. But there is also just the desire to save a part of the past for the future; to keep an animal from disappearing forever.

By the 1980s the cow was thought to be either already extinct or a very nearly. In 1989, the Center for Advanced Studies in Animal Genetics and Breeding at Kerala Agricultural University (KAU) began a search in the Vechur area for any surviving members of this vanishing cow. The dedication of many students, researchers, dairy cooperatives, libraries, and other groups and institutions, led to the discovery of some remaining Vechurs: four cows, a bull, a heifer, and two bull calves (the identification of the animals was mostly determined by appearance because of the relative nondistinctness of the cattle). The university compensated the owners for their little milk machines.

Large projects have started from even smaller beginnings and further investigation brought the number of this new herd to more than twenty. By 1998, the cows were doing well enough, that the university was able to sell 30 to start up new herds elsewhere. KAU also provided advice and help with breeding. And it wasn't just the university and its volunteers that had passion for the conservation effort, the people living in the region were also enthusiastic about the project as well as the opportunity to own such useful and—for them—economical ungulates.

Consider this: the cow doesn't need expensive quarters or need effort (or means of procuring, whether by growing or buying) and storage of extra food. They also need much less water than a regular-sized bovine. At between 3 and 4 kg of milk a day, the Vechur produces just under one-tenth of a full-sized Holstein. On the other hand, it weighs (my somewhat sloppy average) about one-sixth as much. There's much less food and water needed to fuel that milk (or meat) production in this little breed. No barn is necessary to house the lumbering King and Queen of Moo and, let's face it, clean up has got to be easier. Perfect for a small family or even an extended family. But not coming to the factory farm any time soon.

But just how does one ensure that the little cows...make more little cows? Why through Multiple Ovulation and Embryo Transfer (MOET), of course. It ain't romantic, but it's effective. Females and males with the best traits are chosen and the male's "donations" introduced until fertilization occurs. The embryos are then taken and deposited elsewhere. This could include other cattle breeds (in this case, a Holstein-Friesian cross) or other suitable cows of the same breed. In this first experiment, they also crossed the Vechur "donation" with the H-F cow, which resulted in the cow giving birth to both the full Vechur calf and a H-F Vechur cross. The cross had all the characteristics of the H-F cow. To make it less unseemly, they were given cute Indian names like Anjali and Lavan and Kusan.

There are well over 100 Vechurs in over 30 herds today.

Holy shit, Batman! A cow controversy!
Yeah. It's never so simple. One can't just save an animal from extinction without running into trouble. This is the "Case of the Stolen Embryos." Or perhaps not.

It wasn't all smooth sailing for the Vechur Conservation Trust. Between 1993 and 1996, 19 Vechurs died under questionable circumstances that would later be determined to be intentional poisoning. That case has yet to be solved. It also got criticism for the MOET program which some felt was being done with ulterior motives in mind. What might these sinister motives be?

In 1998, Vandana Siva made some accusations that KAU was involved with the transfer of Vechur embryos to a research institute in Scotland (the Roslin Institute at Edinburgh University—the place that cloned Dolly the sheep). She is the director of the research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology. It is a non-governmental institution that deals with environmental issues. More to the point in this instance, she has also done work on the issues of biopiracy and bioprospecting.

She claimed that the institute had "surreptitiously" obtained Vechur embryos and had patented the genes in what would lead to using the cows for transgenic experiments with an eye to creating pharmaceuticals as (in Vandana Siva's words) "walking factories." KAU remained silent initially (a mistake) and the accusation would be repeated as well as get picked up in the press. It was claimed that Roslin was already attempting to patent the genome. Strong stuff and it wasn't over.

KAU wrote Vandana Siva for clarification of her assertions. Now she said that the patent might be for a "breed derived from the Vechur and not necessarily the Vechur per se." It was explained that the source of the accusation came from a patent application "which has used the Vechur germplasm to evolve commercial breeds." It turns out that the patent application cited is not for Roslin but for another entity and the patent (involving getting cows to produce more nutritious milk intended for infants) isn't specific to any particular breed of cow. That company (PPL) was created by Roslin to help on the Dolly the sheep project (mainly making the technology commercial). The two are independent and have no direct connection or share personnel though they still collaborate at times.

Vandana Siva also claimed, that in response to her whistleblowing, the institute removed a number of references to the patent and the cow from its website. Roslin categorically denies this and there is no other evidence beyond the allegation. Patent searches have also proven fruitless to support the claims. KAU and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research are confident that there have been no missing cow embryos.

Is there any connection between KAU and the Roslin Institute? Yes, but hardly suspicious. A KAU scientist was working at the institute on a research project involving the aforementioned Dexter breed. She had discussed the remarkable Vechur cow and wondered if they should write KAU about a collaborative project. This proposal was rejected by the administration and went nowhere. And as the scientist put it, "But when I returned, I found a big controversy had bloomed."

Some of the reasons given for why the cows would be ideal for the institute's research also ring hollow. Among them, Vandana Siva points to the high fat content of the milk and how this could be lucrative. Unfortunately, this is more of an asset in India than it is in Europe or the US where lower fat milk is preferred.

In an interview for Frontline (Indian magazine published by the newspaper The Hindu), Vandana Siva answered questions (transcribed from email exchanges) about the controversy with much suggestion but little evidence. Actually none. The only item of question was the claim that she has a list of "14 patents held or applied for by the Roslin Institute in Europe. One of these patent claims clearly refers to 'Bos indicus,' an Indian breed." (This appears to be the one alluded to above.)

This may indeed be true. Of course Bos indicus is a blanket term (not generally used anymore) for any of India's cattle breeds. Given the great diversity of the country's bovine population, it's not hard to imagine some being thought useful for research purposes. A key asset is that among the many breeds one can find resistance to most strains of cow disease. While this whole controversy seems to be much ado about nothing, it does raise issues about biopiracy and protecting the genetic integrity of India's cows—not to suggest that India should or wants to shut itself off from "exotic" (as opposed to domestic) breeds but that it needs to maintain a healthy level of diversity genetically speaking.

The part after which the writeup ends and the cows go home
The Vechur cow is a rather unassuming creature with something of a remarkable story. Saving an animal from extinction is always cool and knowing that this cow will be important to the life of hundreds or thousands of families halfway around the world is cool part deux.

Living in a place where I can hit the road and get far enough to see actual cows in less than 20 minutes (heck, go north 20 minutes and I'm in America's Dairyland), maybe it's easy to take for granted the sight of those peaceful animals plodding around the pasture chewing cud and swatting flies. And that, probably more than any domesticated animal, the cow left to its own devices and predation and disease would quickly disappear from the face of the earth without help from humans.

If the day's coming when we have to get in the car and go to the zoo to see "the cow," then I don't want to be here. Plus, I really, really like cheese....

Vechur Conservation Trust

Frontline vol 16 issue 7 Mar 27-Apr 9 1999
"A cow and a controversy" R Krishnakumar
Interview with Vandana Siva
Interview with Harry Griffin
Table of contents page and links to articles:
All quotes from there

"Rare cattle species discovered" G Prabhakaran
The Hindu 24 October 2004

Breeds of Livestock - Dexter Cattle

(I admit to switching back and forth between "cow" as the actual term for a female and "cow" as a general term. Sorry.)