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The Elusive Kuchinoshima

The research I delved into for this cow was certainly more intensive than I originally anticipated, and I still didn't find all the information I'm looking for. HOWEVER I still have some interesting factoids to share with you, largely surrounding the industry in general.

One struggle presented with this particular art campaign is that a lot of information is simply inaccessible or difficult to obtain. Things like worldwide festivals can generally be easily found, since the Internet has made possible and encouraged lots of cultural exchange. But when someone wants to get niche, well, that's more difficult.

Turns out there isn't a large demand for the chemical breakdown of milk belonging to a critically maintained breed, so that information is not readily available, go figure. Very specific information like that, particularly when coming from another country, is usually locked in universities, dissertations, and research facilities. I've requested a couple of articles, but haven't heard back yet.

ANYWAY that's part of why this article is a bit late. I wanted to try to get as much info as I could before calling it good enough.

Here is what I have learned: This breed of cattle earns its name from the island on which it lives, Kuchinoshima Island. It, along with the Mishima breed, are all that remains of Japan's native, purebred cattle. For most of history, cattle in Japan were used as working animals, and so their strength was their most notable feature. It wasn't until the end of the Meiji Era (early 1900s, new government partnered with western influence) that it became common to eat cow, and the cultivation of the ever-cherished Wagyu breed began.

Early crossbreeding, as with many beginner practices, was unregulated, and brought undesirable changes to Japan's livestock. It was noted that breeding for milk production (which the Japanese weren't very big on anyway) decreased a cow's working capabilities and lowered the quality of the meat, so western import of cattle was halted after only ten or so years. However, the breeds that were kept and cultivated, recognized as their own official breed in 1944, were the Japanese Brown, Black, Polled, and Shorthorn. These make up the Wagyu breeds.

You'll notice that none of these are the Kuchinoshima. But let's keep going!

Japan certainly has a dairy industry, but it, as it is with many Asian countries, is smaller than that of Europeans. Dairy consumption didn't become terribly common until the 1960s or so, and still takes a backseat to the beef industry. This is possibly due to the higher percentage of lactose intolerance in these countries, and the fact that it just took longer for the cultural exchange to influence their diet. Initially Japan was resistant to establishing a dairy industry, even coining their own term to unfavorably refer to European occupants, blaming their consumption of butter for how their off-putting body odor. The phrase "to stink of butter" is still used to refer to something extremely and unfavorably western. The point is, dairy isn't as prevalent in Japan as it is in America, and it took a long time to get going. For milk, they typically use a combination of Holsteins and occasionally Mishima cows.

What are Mishima cows? Mishima cattle are the OTHER native Japanese cows which live on Mishima island and are also considered critically maintained. That means there are very few of them, but enough to keep the species alive IF we are careful. This breed provides roughly 2 gallons of milk a day per milking cycle (in effect, 232gal per year). The Mishima cattle breed was designated as a national treasure in 1928.

"So, Robyn," you ask, patient but curious, "what can you tell us about the actual cow in the title, you know, the one you said you were going to talk about?" First, The Kuchinoshima breed is believed to have become feral after a handful of cows escaped from their farm in 1918.

Second, they're only about 3-3.5 feet tall at the withers and weigh around 880 pounds. Third, I can tell you that the homozygous-to-heterozygous ratio for the SNPs (single nucleotide polymorphism) gene in Kuchinoshima cattle is 1 : 1.2.

Don't know what that means off the top of your head? Me either.

I stayed up waaay too late reading through similar data tables, trying to find relevant information, but getting mixed up in acronyms and heavy scientific terms instead. But basically it means that in relation to the other data gathered in this study, the scientists understood that this breed has experienced a fair amount of inbreeding due to the small size of its population, which isn't great. This and other studies also point out that due to its isolation, this breed has largely maintained the traits that made this breed desirable many generations ago, which is kind of great!

Surprisingly, at least to me, there are many studies about DNA sequencing available about this breed in particular (along with the other Japanese breeds) but no stats on more basic things like milk yield and composition. However, these continued studies give scientists the information they need to discuss both crossbreeding for genetic diversity and preservation of the unique characteristics.

In 2000, a mite-borne disease killed about a third of the population, leaving only 99 animals remaining. It is likely there will need to be a little crossbreeding done in order to preserve these rare cows.

Werner Lampert, Austrian sustainability expert and author, describes the Kuchinoshima cows as "cautious, but not distrustful" of humans, as well as being "excellent climbers" when he encountered them in the hilly jungle.

Most infuriating thing learned this month: "Gene NOD2 is associated with EBVs for SCS, udder depth, milk, and protein yields." Found the gene responsible for milk and protein yields, but did not learn what the milk and protein yields WERE despite reading half a dozen studies and countless blog posts.

Art notes: Our chibi Kuchinoshima this month is wearing a traditional children's kimono, as is custom for kids to do at any given coming-of-age ceremony. He is also wearing a paper kabuto, or samurai helmet. Kids make these out of newspaper or large colorful paper as a call back to the military displays in the early days of Tango no Sekku. He is carrying koinobori, the traditional fish-shaped windsocks, which would traditionally be hung outside one's home during such an event.

In conclusion: Cow rare. Cow elusive. But Cow important to understanding where Cow came from.

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