Antarctic Cows

The issue of non-native species in the Antarctic has been on the agenda at the ATCM meeting in Sofia this week. Usually the sorts of critters in our sights are things like the king crab, rats, seeds and microbes. Occasionally larger mammals make an appearance – such as the story of the reindeer in South Georgia. Cows, however, are rarely mentioned in the same sentence as “Antarctica.” Today, that is going to change. I’m currently at the AGS Library in Wisconsin, dairy capital of the USA, and I could think of no better place to come to in order to unearth the details about Admiral Byrd’s milking herd.

Fresh milk is something that modern day expeditioners and Antarctic programme personnel can only dream of – it sits alongside oranges and bananas at the top of the wish list for those who overwinter. One of the long-standing jokes at the Trans-Antarctic Expedition Hut at New Zealand’s Scott Base is the 1950s style glass milk bottle that still sits in the letterbox, just like back home. Powdered milk was (and is) the order of the day – but for the USA’s Admiral Byrd, an ample supply of Horlick’s was simply not enough. Instead of the product, he carried the source.

Any farmer will tell you that a cow is not just a cow (a full A-Z of the animals can be found here). Byrd was discerning, and chose Guernsey cows to take south because of the quality of their milk. The three animals hailed from Deerfoot Farms in Southboro, Massachusetts (“Deerfoot Farms Maid”), Emmadine Farm in Hopewell Junction, New York (“Foremost Girl”), and Klondike Farm in Ellan, North Carolina (“Klondike Gay Nira Pola”). A fourth, christened “Iceberg”, was born to Klondike en route to Antarctica. As he was a bobby calf, Iceberg was not a useful addition to the expedition in terms of milk production. He was, however, very handy when it came to publicity. Cue the column inches back home, detailing the most southerly birth of a cattle beast, the cows’ first steps onto the icy continent, and the eating habits of the miniature dairy herd.

Also, cue my excitement. Not only were the adventures of the cows chronicled in the US press during the expedition, they were also hailed as heroes upon their return. Iceberg was invited to official luncheons, displayed at farm shows, featured on pin badges, and is even the star of a children’s book. At the annual meeting of the American Guernsey Cattle Club, he and Foremost Southern Girl were served “hay cocktails – heaps of hay with cracked ice” atop their very own table, laid with white linen. But wait, there’s more. The intrepid cows were subsequently used in advertisements for milking products back home in the USA. In case you were wondering, the apparatus used to extract the daily milk was a “surge milker”, examples of which are on display in several dairy museums. (I’m still trying to track down more examples of adverts that feature the cows, but I have a box from the archives on the way as I type).

So, there you have it – Advertising, Antarctica and Agriculture all converging here in Milwaukee on a Friday afternoon. I’m halfway through my stay in the dairy capital, and I finally seem to be getting somewhere with all these archives…

PS The internet is a weird and wonderful place, and my search for “cows in Antarctica” turned up another type of Antarctic cow entirely… This one is in keeping with the tradition of the midwinter swim, but it’s also post Madrid Protocol, and meets with tough environmental standards.

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