Breeds of Dairy Cattle

by Erin Brown

Have you ever wondered why not all dairy cows look the same? That’s because there are different breeds and types of cows, just like dogs or horses. However, all dairy cows are taken care of by farmers, eat nearly 100 pounds of nutritious feed and drink nearly a bathtub full of water each day.

In the U.S. there are seven major breeds of dairy cows—Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn and Red and White Holstein. Keep reading to learn more about each type of cow!

Ayrshires are recognized as one of the most beautiful of the dairy cattle breeds, ranging in a variety of colors from light to deep cherry red, mahogany, brown or a combination of these colors with white.
Characteristics: Ayrshire’s 1,200 pound medium stature equips them to be a strong, rugged cow that can easily adapt to any environment.
History: Ayrshires came to the United States from the County of Ayr in Scotland in 1822.
Fun Fact: The Ayrshire breed is widely known for its “vigorous personality.”

Brown Swiss cows are typically solid brown, varying from very light to dark and are easy to spot with their large, floppy ears.
Characteristics: These docile giants weigh in at around 1,500 pounds, making them one of the largest dairy breeds. They are known for their longevity and calm temperament.
History: Brown Swiss came to the United States from the mountains of Switzerland in 1869.
Fun Fact: Many historians consider Brown Swiss to be the oldest cattle breed in existence, with records dating back to 400 B.C.

Guernseys are fawn and white in color and are known for their gentle disposition.
Characteristics: Weighing in at around 1,200 pounds when full grown, Guernseys are about 3/5 the size of Holsteins, the largest breed of dairy cow.
History: In 1831, Guernseys came to the United States from the Isle of Guernsey, an island in the English Channel off the coast of France.
Fun Fact: Guernseys are often referred to as the “Royal Breed” because their milk is almost golden in color They produce high-butterfat, high-protein milk with a high concentration of betacarotene.

Holsteins are easily recognized by their distinctive black and white coloring. In fact, they are the most popular breed of dairy cattle in the U.S.!
Characteristics: Holsteins are one of the largest dairy cow breeds, weighing around 1,500 pounds and measuring almost five feet tall at the shoulder. They are known for their high milk production.
History: The Holstein cow originated in Europe, and was imported to America from Holland in the mid 1800’s.
Fun Fact: No two Holsteins have the same spots!

Jerseys are the second most popular breed of dairy cattle in the U.S. and often stand out with their fawn-color coat, prominent eyes and long eye lashes.
Characteristics: Jerseys are the smallest breed of dairy cow, weighing in at around 900 pounds when full grown. They are known for producing milk with higher percentages of protein and butterfat, which makes their milk perfect for making dairy foods like cheese and ice cream.
History: The first Jerseys were brought to the U.S. in 1850 from the Island of Jersey, a small British isle.
Fun Fact: With its small size and high milk yield, the Jersey breed is regarded as the most efficient dairy breed.

Milking Shorthorns are considered the most versatile of all the breeds, and are red, red and white, white or roan in color.
Characteristics: Milking Shorthorns are average in size, weighing about 1,400 pounds when full grown. Originally, Milking Shorthorns were imported to the U.S. as a dual-purpose breed, meaning they were used for both milk and beef. Today, there are two separate breeds – the dairy cattle breed and a beef cattle breed.
History: The Milking Shorthorn originated in Northeastern England and arrived in the United States in 1783.
Fun Fact: Milking Shorthorns were helpful in providing early settlers with not only milk, but meat and strength to pull wagons.

Red and White Holsteins are known for their red and white spots. They are primarily Holstein cows, but may contain genetics from other breeds that have red coloring, such as Ayrshire or Milking Shorthorns.
Characteristics: Red and White Holsteins are also a larger dairy cow breed and weigh in just shy of Holsteins at around 1,400 pounds. Like Holsteins, they are also known for high milk production.
History: The Red and White Holstein originated in the U.S. and Canada, as farmers began selectively breeding for the recessive red color trait in Holsteins.
Fun Fact: Red and White Holsteins are the youngest cows—they became an established breed in 1964.

Erin Brown

Erin is the Communication Manager for the American Dairy Association Mideast and a Jersey cow enthusiast. When Erin's not at the office or working on her parent's dairy farm in southeastern Ohio, you'll find her hanging out with her husband, a large animal vet, and their Australian Shepherd puppy.

3 Comments

  1. CowEx | | Reply

    Well, let me share five more interesting fact about Holstein Frisian Cattle because this milk cattle breed fascinate me and farmers more then others:

    Holstein cattle breed known as optimal choice for milk production in America, Holland and Asia
    This cattle breed is also known for its versatility and health factor
    Quality milk production makes this breed first choice for dairy farmers
    High lifetime yields and 25,000 liters of milk an average
    High quality lean meat with nearly 9,000 kg of fats and proteins.

  2. Patsy Mae Mills | | Reply

    My Father was raised on a huge family farm in the early 1900’s, with cows, horses, a bull, pigs, chickens, etc., with his parents, and a family of 8 sons and 3 daughters, you name it. When he and my Mother married, they built a home on part of that farm that my Father was given, and also bought land, which ended up with 15 acres to raise his family that would eventually be eight children (8 girls, 1 boy). I was daughter number 7. We had a cow during WWII, until she was hit by a car, and because of her injuries, Daddy killed and butchered her for the meat. We also had pigs, chickens, etc. until sometime in the 50’s. Always fresh milk and eggs!! I was interested in finding some history/information about cows to include in some history I am writing about our lives during those years. I think our cow was a Jersey.

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