By Heather Smith Thomas – When selecting a family milk cow or choosing from the best dairy cow breeds to start a small dairy, there are a number of options. The most “ideal” breed will be one that best suits your own situation and purpose.
There are fewer dairy cow breeds than beef cattle breeds. Only a handful of dairy cow breeds dominate the dairy industry, and these are the breeds that produce relatively high volumes of milk. There are several “minor” dairy cow breeds, however, that might be well-suited for a small farm or grass-based dairy cow farming operation, or for a family milk cow that only needs to produce a gallon or two each day, possibly sharing her milk between you and her calf. Here is a list of the most common dairy cow breeds and a few of the not-so-common ones.
Holstein: This cattle breed originated in Europe. Their ancestors were black cattle and white cattle belonging to two tribes of people who settled in the Netherlands about 2,000 years ago. Selectively bred for high milk production, these “crossbreds” became a definitive breed, eventually becoming very popular in central Europe. Originally known as Holstein-Friesians, they were first brought to America in 1852.
Today’s Holsteins are black and white, though some are red and white. The cows weigh about 1,500 pounds and bulls weigh about 2,000 pounds. The calves are large, often weighing 90 pounds or more at birth. There are more Holsteins in America today than any other type of dairy breed because they produce large volumes of milk that’s low in butterfat—ideal for drinking.
Guernsey: This breed had its start more than 1,000 years ago on a small island in the English Channel near the coast of France. The Duke of Normandy sent a group of monks to educate the island people, and the monks took with them some of the best French dairy cattle. The Guernsey was developed from those cattle. Guernseys were first brought to America in 1840.
They are tan and white, with yellow skin. The cows usually weigh about 1,100 to 1,200 pounds and bulls weigh about 1,700 pounds. Calves are relatively small at birth and the cows rarely have any calving problems. Milk is yellow in color and very rich in butterfat. Heifers mature early and breed quickly, and have good dispositions, making them easy to handle.
Jersey: This breed originated on Jersey Island in the English Channel. The first Jerseys were brought to the United States in 1850. Jerseys range in color from fawn or cream colored to mouse gray, brown or black. They may or may not have white markings. The muzzle and tail are usually black. These are small cattle, the cows weighing 900 to 1,000 pounds and bulls about 1,500 pounds. Jersey cow milk production is high—Jerseys produce more milk per pound of body weight than any other dairy breed and their milk is richest in butterfat.
Brown Swiss: This breed originated in Switzerland and was first brought to America in 1869. They are very docile cattle and because of their good disposition are often a favorite for 4-H and other youth projects.
They can be light or dark brown, or gray. Cows weigh about 1,400 pounds and bulls weigh about 1,900 pounds. The cows are noted for longevity, sturdy hardiness, and milk with high butterfat and protein content.
Ayrshire: These cattle originated in Scotland and were brought to the U.S. in 1822. They are red and white in color. The red can be any shade, and is sometimes very dark. The white spots are usually jagged at the edges. Cows are medium size—about 1,200 pounds—and the bulls weigh about 1,800 pounds. Ayrshires are noted for their good udders, long life and hardiness. They manage very well in most environments without pampering, and give rich, white milk.
Milking Shorthorn: This breed originated in northeastern England and was first brought to the U.S. in 1783. Most of the early settlers in this country had Shorthorn cattle. They are red and white, white, or roan. The cows weigh 1,400 to 1,600 pounds and bulls weigh 2,000 pounds or more. These are very versatile cattle and were first used for both meat and milk. They are noted for long life and easy calving. Their milk is richer than that of Holsteins but not as high in butterfat as Jerseys or Guernseys.
Milking Devon: In 1623, two Devon heifers and a bull were shipped to Plymouth Colony in America from Devonshire England, to be used as draft animals. The American Devon developed as a multipurpose breed, used for meat and milk. Today, these medium-sized cattle are often used by small farmers because they are docile and easy to handle and because they are easy keepers and don’t require much feed. Even though they don’t produce a lot of milk, they can work well as family milk cows or in a small grass-based dairy where cattle must thrive and produce under minimal management on a forage diet. These cattle are various shades of red in color.
Red and White: This is a relatively new dairy breed, with the registry established in 1964. They are a composite of several dairy breeds, utilizing red color genetics. The composite breed began in 1962 at the University of Minnesota with an experimental herd of Milking Shorthorns crossed with red Holsteins. Later the breed association allowed other red and red-and-white dairy cattle into the registry, including Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Jersey, and a few dual-purpose breeds such as Sim-mental, Gelbvieh and Normande.
Dutch Belted: Bought to Holland by Dutch nobility, this colorful breed (with a large white band encircling the midsection of the body) traces back to cattle in Switzerland and Austria. They were highly prized for meat and milk and were popular in Holland by the mid-1700s. The first imports to the U.S. arrived in 1838, where they were used as a dairy breed. Well known for their ease of management and milk quality, this breed set early records for butterfat.
These are average-size cattle, but small-boned and easy calving. They have great longevity and fertility, high meat yield and good disposition—qualities that make them desirable in crossbreeding programs for grass-based dairies or small-farm meat production. They are rare today, however, and some breeders are trying to preserve the breed by not crossbreeding them.
Dexter: Dexter cattle originated in Ireland where they were bred by smallholding farmers. They may have been produced by crossing the Kerry and another breed (possibly Devon). The first recorded imports to North America were in 1912, though some may have arrived sooner because in early days there was no differentiation made between Dexters and Kerry cattle.
These small cattle are gentle and easy to handle, requiring less feed than larger breeds. Because of these qualities, they have become popular with small farmers in recent years. Cows measure between 36 to 42 inches tall at the shoulder and weigh less than 750 pounds. The average Dexter bull weighs less than 1,000 pounds. Most Dexters are solid black in color though some are red or dun. They make a good dual purpose animal, with small cuts of high-quality meat, and the average cow gives 1.5 to 2.5 gallons of milk per day with butterfat content of four to five percent.
Kerry: There are also some rare breeds that can be used as dairy animals, including the Kerry cattle—descendants of the Celtic Shorthorn that was brought to Ireland as early as 2,000 B.C. Kerry cows were first imported to the U.S. in 1818 and were commonly used in this country all through the 19th century. By the 1930s they became rare, however, and there are only a few herds today. Kerry cattle are small and fine-boned, mostly black in color. Cows may weigh between 780 and 1,000 pounds. They are hardy and long-lived, with cows often producing calves until age 14 or 15.
Dairy Cow Breeds: Tips on Buying a Dairy Cow
There are several ways to get started with a small dairy or family milk cow once you have selected which of the dairy cow breeds best fit your needs. You can purchase a mature animal that has already calved and is producing milk, or a pregnant cow or heifer that will soon calve. Or, if you are not in a hurry, you can buy a bred heifer, or even a calf to raise yourself. A baby calf will be cheapest to purchase, but you then have to feed her for a couple of years—and also find a way to get her bred.
The most expensive animal will be a high-producing young cow. If you just want to get a cow for the raw milk benefits, or just to have a family milk cow, however, you can select a gentle cow that’s had several calves or even a middle-aged cow, with average milk production. This is the easiest, if you have never had a milk cow before. If you start with a heifer, you’ll have to calve her out and train her to be milked.
If you plan to have a dairy and raise a few heifers to sell, select a breed that is well known and popular in your area, so you’ll have a good market for the heifers. Find out what dairy cow breeds are being raised on other farms near you. You might also consider having registered purebreds. If selecting just one animal as a family milk cow, the breed doesn’t matter so much; you can select whatever breed you think will work for your own situation. Registration papers don’t necessarily guarantee good conformation, production or disposition. Just select a nice, gentle animal that will give enough milk for your own purposes.
When choosing a purebred cow or heifer, however, you can use registration and pedigree information to your advantage to help you make a good choice. You can look up genetic and production information about her ancestors—which can help predict how well a certain heifer might milk when she has calves. Even though pedigree and performance history can be helpful, the most important thing in selecting any animal is common sense and good judgment, paying attention to the physical appearance of the animal, and to her disposition and attitude.
Do you have any tips or insights on how to select the best dairy cow breeds for your farm? Please leave a comment and share your experiences with us!
Originally published in the May/June 2010 issue of Countryside & Small Stock Journal and regularly vetted for accuracy.