Dairy cow breeds are numerous. How do we know the right breed for our farm or family situation? Milk production varies within dairy cow breeds. The content of milk fat and solids varies, also. Knowing the breed characteristics will help you decide if a certain breed will fit your needs. If you are looking into starting a small or large dairy operation, being as familiar as possible with the dairy cattle breeds, space needed, pasture requirements and temperament will help your business.
The most often seen dairy cow breeds in the United States are Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire and Brown Swiss. The Milking Shorthorn and Dexter are also well represented dual purpose breeds, providing both milk and meat. Many people will also raise the Jersey breed for meat. Of course, all cows produce milk after giving birth. Technically, you could milk any of the cattle breeds, but the return on your effort won’t be as great as when milking a dairy cow breed. Keep in mind that many small farms and homesteads do quite well with dairy goat breeds for their milk needs.
In addition to the usual feed, water, housing and health care needs, when cattle farming, a dairy cow needs to give birth to a calf every year or so in order to keep producing milk. Keep this in mind when getting a family milk cow. You will need to make arrangements to have her bred and decide what to do with the offspring in order to have a continuous milk supply in your backyard.
A limited amount of equipment is needed when keeping one or two cows on the family homestead. Stainless steel pans, glass jars, thermometer and strainer are some of the tools you will need. If you are planning to run a small dairy operation or a larger facility, the equipment is much more involved, including milking machines, storage tanks and a bottling facility.
There are eight top dairy cow breeds in North America which are a good starting point when looking for the right cow or herd for your needs.
The most recognizable breed of the dairy cow breeds is the Holstein or the Holstein-Friesians. Imported from Holland in the 1850’s, they became a popular dairy cow in America. Most have black and white coloring, although red and white are accepted. Some are mostly white and occasionally an all black cow will occur. The Holstein cows are known for their sweet temperament, gentleness and strong herd following instinct. The Holstein is the largest breed of dairy cow at approximately 1500 pounds when mature. They stand almost five feet tall. This is the breed I showed in competitions when in college. I admired their ease of handling but keeping the white spots white was a little challenging! The milk from the Holstein is the lowest in milk fat of the milking breeds and the most plentiful in amount. The yield from an average Holstein cow is 17,400 pounds per year. The butterfat content is in the 600-pound range.
Often the Jersey is chosen as the family milk cow. This breed originated on the French Isle of Jersey. The Jersey cow is much smaller than others, standing about four feet tall. The mature weight is between 800 and 1200 pounds. The coloring is a fawn color of tans and browns, with white and black shading around the nose and mouth. They are sweet and curious cows. Studies have shown that the Jersey is much better at converting grass to milk than the Holstein. Jersey milk production offers the most butterfat and protein content of all the dairy cow breeds. The average production is six gallons of milk per day. They are efficient grazers and produce longer in life than the Holstein. The same quality temperament that is found in the cows is lacking in the bulls. They can be quite a handful after maturity.
The Brown Swiss, originated in Switzerland, and is one of the larger dairy cow breeds. Not only large, the Brown Swiss is slow to mature, meaning that the age at first calving is much older than the Holstein and Jersey. The Brown Swiss is a good producer with the production falling between the Holstein and Jersey and the butterfat and protein also in that range. They are a heavy boned breed with a grayish color called brown swiss. The Brown Swiss was brought to America in the late 1800’s. Brown Swiss are large at around 1500 pounds. The average milk production is 2200 pounds per year with butterfat of 919 pounds and protein of 750 pounds. This is a good production breed and often sought after for cheese making. Since the breed does well in many different climates, it is a good breed for many types of farms.
The Guernsey are the taller relative to the Jersey breed. They originated from the Isle of Guernsey which is next to the Isle of Jersey. This was a popular breed in the early 1900’s because of the creamy golden milk produced by the cows. Unfortunately, the Guernsey breed did not have the production or build to adapt to the commercial dairy business. Guernseys are among the rare dairy cow breeds in America. The breed is great for hand milking and many small family farms love the breed. Fourteen thousand pounds of milk per year with a high butterfat and protein content makes the Guernsey stand out. The milk is also said to contain large amounts of beta carotene. The cows consume less feed per pound of milk than the larger dairy cow breeds. Since their importation in the late 1800s the breed standards have been meticulously upheld. This breed is making a resurgence in the dairy field.
The Ayrshire is a larger breed of dairy cow. Rated one of the biggest dairy cow breeds at 1000 to 1300 pounds at maturity. The yield falls between a Holstein and a Jersey in production. The Ayrshire is a pretty mix of white with brown markings and all white is permissible. Originally from Scotland, the breed was developed from careful crossing of many breeds including Holstein. The purebred Ayrshires will produce only red and white offspring, however. The breed is very vigorous and hardy and the calves are strong. This is also a breed that is popular for meat from the steers. The average 1200-pound cow will produce as much as 17,000 pounds of milk per year.
Other Noted Dairy Cow Breeds
The Dutch Belted breed had its era of popularity in the mid-1800s to early 1900s after PT Barnum imported the breed for his exhibits. The breed now has only 200 registered entries on the breed books and is listed on the critical list of the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy. Considered a docile breed, that is light boned and easily calves. The breed is also prized for the longevity and pasture-raised operations like their high meat yield. The black coloring with the white belt, or Oreo cookie appearance is the characteristic breed pattern.
The first importation of Milking Shorthorns was to Virginia in the 1700s from Northern England. The early settlers used the breed for food and plowing. The breed has distinctive coloring mixtures of red and white and a roan pattern known only in the shorthorn breed. This breed is well known and well dispersed throughout America. Over the years, breeders have made careful improvements and increased the milking quality and appearance of the breed.
The Dexter is an Irish breed imported to the United States. The Dexter cattle breed has become popular lately with the homesteading movement as it can be kept as both a milking animal and the steers used for meat. The milk production is perfect for a family with one to three gallons per day average yield. They are small, standing between three and four feet tall and have more of a beef cattle conformation. Because of their small size, they have smaller feed requirement and grazing area needed.
Although the classic Holstein is what I think of when thinking of a dairy cow, I dream of actually owning a few Jersey cows one day. Which dairy cow breed is your favorite?