Fifteen years ago, the Normande — a breed of cattle famous for crunching the lush green grass of Normandie and producing milk that gets made into delicious Camembert — was almost nonexistent in the US. These days, though, she can be increasingly seen grazing in pastures on the other side of the Atlantic, especially in the Northeast.
Over the last few years, about forty farmers have adopted Normande cattle and hundreds of others have used them for cross-breeding. Why? It’s all about the milk. “It makes very good cheese,” explains Jérôme Chateau, a French former veterinarian based in Minneapolis who has become the chief importer of Normandes to the United States.
“Most of the large artisan cheese-makers use our genetics, most notably Jasper Hill in Vermont and also Meadow Creek Dairy in Virginia or Rogue Creamery in Oregon,” explains Chateau.
Back out to pasture
Chateau is a Parisian whose two great passions are genetics and the history of cow breeds. His company, Normande Genetics, imports Normandes and seeks to convince farmers of their merits.
He explains, though, that even before he began bringing Normandes to the US, the ground was already being laid for them with a growing tendency to return to grazing cattle.
After World War II, many American cattle farmers turned away from grazing, choosing instead to barn-raise their animals, feeding them mainly grain, not grass. The practice is known to increase milk production rapidly but is also notoriously bad for the animal’s health.
With increasing American awareness of food quality and consumer demand for responsibly farmed animal products, more farmers have sought to embrace slow-food notions like pasture-raising cattle. “It’s a practice that had disappeared since the 1950s,” says Chateau.
Unfortunately, the switch back to grass-fed has come too late for many cows. Holsteins are America’s number one dairy cow breed and have now fed on grain for generations. Their bodies are no longer adapted to eating grass.
“They were genetically selected on criteria that are not compatible with pasture grazing. They get too thin and experience fertility problems,” explains Chateau, “When it comes to grazing, cattle farmers can’t have thin cows. Their size needs to remain stable despite fluctuations in grass quality.”
French cows are here to save the day, at least for beef and dairy lovers. The Normande is the third most popular breed in France after Holsteins and Montbéliarde, and it’s gaining a foot- er, hoofhold Stateside.
“The Normande is a beef and dairy cow. The milk is rich in fat and protein, perfect for cheese or yogurt. Their meat is very marbled, very high quality,” says Chateau.
“They are,” he says, “the very symbol of French excellence.”