Vo-COW-bulary: Dairy Breeds Edition

A little while ago we posted this blog explaining some basics of a few breeds of beef cattle. If you remember, we specified that some breeds are better at producing muscle (beef breeds), whereas other breeds are better at producing milk (dairy breeds). That is not to say, however, that dairy cattle are not a part of the beef system! We know that only females that have given birth can produce milk, so the males of dairy breeds are often raised as market steers to be used for their meat once they reach maturity. When a dairy cow has aged and should no longer be used for milk production, she will also be used for meat; primarily in processed products like soup, ground beef, and similar products.

Today, we will focus in on our dairy breeds and discuss what differentiates each of them.


Dairy Breeds

You may remember that there are quite a few beef breeds in the world. However, there are really only about six popular dairy breeds of cattle. Each of them have different colorings, size, milk fat percentage, milk protein, and milk production.



Holstein cattle on an Iowa dairy farm

Holstein cattle are the big, black and white spotted cattle you see represented in kid’s books and movies most often. However, there are also red and white Holsteins, and those may be noted as a separate breed. These cattle are the most popular dairy breed because they are milk machines!

Holstein cattle originated in the Netherlands about 2,000 years ago! These cattle are huge (about 58” tall at the shoulder) and are known for being one of the largest cattle breeds. They also produce more milk than any other breed of cattle. They can adapt to different diets or management systems, and perform well in multiple environments. One Holstein cow can produce up to 10 gallons of milk every day! Can you imagine all that milk?

Compared to other breeds, Holsteins have lower butterfat and protein content. If this is a concern for a producer, they might choose to crossbreed Jerseys (another common dairy breed with a higher milk protein content) with Holsteins to produce what is sometimes called a “HoJo.” HoJos can produce lots of milk with a higher protein content.



Jersey cattle. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Compared to Holsteins, Jersey cattle are much smaller. This breed is usually a light brown color with a darker face, hooves, nose, and tail. Some Jerseys are a bit darker, almost a grey or dull black, which is called Mulberry.

Jersey cattle probably originated from the coast of France, though nobody really knows for sure. These animals have been shipped worldwide for hundreds of years and experienced a lot of popularity from the 1860s until WWI. They get their name from the Isle of Jersey which is situated in the English Channel just off the coast of France. Today, the breed is the second largest dairy breed in the world. Milk from Jersey cows has superior nutritional value and protein content, which demands a premium price at market, and yields more product when being processed into cheese. Their milk is also high in calcium and butterfat.

Brown Swiss


Brown Swiss cattle, Image by Pete Linforth from Pixabay. https://pixabay.com/photos/cows-cattle-farm-rural-agriculture-2641195/

Sometimes also referred to as Braunvieh, Brown Swiss cattle are prolific, docile, and dark brown to silver in color. This breed is likely the oldest dairy breed, originating in Switzerland at least 1000 years ago. Because of the rugged landscape and harsh climate of Switzerland, these cattle can deal well with these tougher conditions.

Brown Swiss cattle have a high protein-to-fat ratio, making their milk excellent for cheese production. We can’t complain about that!



Little Sark – Guernsey Cattle, © Colin Smith and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons License. http://www.geograph.org.gg/photo/1719


Guernsey cattle are sometimes called “Golden Guernsey” because of the color of their milk. Their milk is rich and golden because of its high levels of beta carotene, the stuff that’s in carrots that we can form Vitamin A from.

Guernsey cattle hail from the Isle of Guernsey just off the coast of France. They are another spotted cattle breed, but instead of white with black spots, they are white with reddish-brown spots or patches. They are a smaller sized animal (comparable to the size of a Jersey) are said to be efficient feed converters by eating 20 to 30% less feed per pound of milk than larger breeds of cattle.



A prize winning Ayrshire cow at the Romsey show 2005. Photo from Wikimedia Commons.

Ayrshire cattle are medium-sized animals (1,200 lbs at maturity), strong, and adaptable. These cattle are another spotted breed, with white and red patches. Historically, these patches could look more brindle or roan, but these patterns are rare in the breed today.

Ayrshire cattle originate from the County of Ayr in Scotland in the early 1800s. Though they are not the most popular breed in the U.S. currently, their adaptability makes them a popular breed in many other countries, including South Africa and Russia.

Milking Shorthorn


Dairy Shorthorn cow at Tullamore Show, County Offaly, Ireland, 2012. Licensed by Finnegas under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported License.

Milking Shorthorn (sometimes called Dairy Shorthorn) cattle are an offshoot from the beef breed of Shorthorn cattle. Because of this tie, Milking Shorthorns are considered a “dual purpose” breed capable of producing both milk and meat.

Milking Shorthorns, as well as their beef counterpart, are known for their beautiful red and white roan coats. They originated from Great Britain, and their milk has a high protein-to-fat ratio.


Internationally, there are many other breeds of dairy cattle. Montbeliarde and Swedish Red have begun to make an appearance in crossbreeding systems here in the United States. Others like Normande, Milking Devon, or Friesian are raised for dairy, as well.

Historically, more dairy cattle producers have preferred to keep purebred lines instead of crossbreeding. This has recently changed, and producers in the dairy industry are experimenting more with dairy breed crosses. When crossing breeds of livestock, the progeny (offspring) can contain beneficial traits from both or multiple breeds. This can look like the Holstein and Jersey cross mentioned above where the offspring may produce more milk than a pure Jersey but with more protein than a pure Holstein.

Crossbred livestock also exhibit something called heterosis (also called hybrid vigor). This phenomenon essentially causes the first generation of the cross to grow larger, faster, and produce more milk or meat than the genetics of either parent would suggest. This phenomenon is common across all organisms and was responsible for a crop yield boom in the 1940s.

To ensure the future of their herd, dairy producers look for cattle that are healthy, structurally sound, and have a history of calving easily. Dairy cattle are also measured by their milk production. Producers measure this by pounds of milk (there are 8.6 pounds to a gallon of milk) per lactation (305 days). The USDA reported that in 2018 milk production per cow in the United States was just over 23,000 pounds (over 2,600 gallons) in 305 days. That’s almost nine gallons of milk every day of their lactation!

Farmers also measure percent protein and butterfat content of the milk produced. This varies from breed to breed, herd to herd, and animal to animal. However, most breeds have about 3.5-4.5% fat content and 3-4% protein content. The content of fat and protein can impact what the milk is best used for and can impact the price given to the farmer.

What else would you like to learn about dairy production? Let us know in the comments!



3 thoughts on “Vo-COW-bulary: Dairy Breeds Edition

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