Oct 6, 2020 – Dairy Cattle Breeds

Today I’d like to cover the most common dairy breeds. Remember these are “bony” cattle who use all of their energy in making massive amounts of milk.

From left to right: Holstein, commercial (not registered mixed breed), Brown Swiss, Holstein, Jersey, Ayrshire

In fact, they often will suffer from Milk Fever – a condition where they use so much energy and calcium making milk that they can’t even walk. We treat them with an IV drip of calcium to get their bodies balanced.

Jerseys are the most common “back yard” or 4-H dairy cattle. We have been showing Jerseys in 4-H for many years.

Bathing for a show

Jerseys are smaller cattle, averaging about 800-900 lbs. They are traditionally docile and easy to handle. Our 9 yr old Jersey comes to her name when we call her.

Jerseys are known for rich, thick milk.

This is from the US Jersey website:

“Jerseys naturally produce the highest quality milk for human consumption. Compared to average milk, a glass of Jersey milk has greater nutritional value: 15% to 20% more protein, 15% to 18% more calcium, and 10% to 12% more phosphorous, and also considerably higher levels of an essential vitamin, B12.
This nutrient-dense Jersey milk tastes better. The reason is there is more protein, calcium and other non-fat solids in her milk compared to other breeds.
Compared to average milk, Jersey milk increases product yields and manufacturing plant efficiency. Cheesemakers make 25% more cheese from Jersey milk and buttermakers increase yields by over 30%—both at a lower cost per pound of product.”

Next, let’s talk about what everyone thinks of when we say dairy cow – the Holstein. This is the classic black and white cow, made more famous recently by Chick-fil-A advertising.

The following is an excerpt from the Holstein Assoc website.

Physical Characteristics
Holsteins are large, stylish animals with color patterns of black and white or red and white. A healthy Holstein calf weighs 90 pounds or more at birth. A mature Holstein cow weighs about 1,500 pounds and stands 58 inches tall at the shoulder. Holstein heifers can be bred at 13 months of age, when they weigh about 800 pounds. It is desirable to have Holstein females calve for the first time between 23 and 26 months of age. Holstein gestation is approximately nine months. While some cows may live considerably longer, the average productive life of a Holstein is approximately four years.

Ayrshires are a breed that I see as a “middle ground” between the Holstein and the Jersey. My daughter has been showing Ayrshires for a few years now and we are enjoying them as a breed.

Here is information from the USA Ayrshire Breeder’s website:

  Ayrshires are medium-sized cattle and should weigh over 1200 pounds at maturity.  They are strong, rugged cattle that adapt to all management systems including group handling on dairy farms with free stalls and milking parlors.  Ayrshires excel in udder conformation and are not subject to excessive foot and leg problems.  These traits make Ayrshires outstanding commercial dairy cattle.  

  Other traits that make Ayrshires attractive to the commercial dairyman include the vigor of Ayrshire calves.  They are strong and easy to raise.  Ayrshires do not possess the yellow tallow characteristics that would reduce carcass value, so Ayrshire bull calves can be profitably raised as steers. 

The Ayrshire is a moderate butterfat breed and relatively high protein breed. The actual average of all Ayrshires on official ABA programs in 2002 is 17,230 pounds of milk with 665 pounds of fat and 542 pounds of protein.

Brown Swiss are a very large, almost beefy breed. They require massive amounts of feed and forage to be healthy. They are hardy cattle but require extra feed intake due to their size.


Brown Swiss are low-maintenance, high producing, adaptable cows that live a long time and make money for dairy producers.

High Production

Brown Swiss yield large volumes of milk with high components, boasting an ideal fat-to-protein ratio for cheese-making. For this reason, Brown Swiss producers often receive more money per 100 pounds of milk than owners of other breeds. A low somatic cell count also contributes to the demand for Brown Swiss cattle. The average 305d ME for Brown Swiss is 23,090 pounds of milk, 
935 pounds of fat, and 767 pounds of protein.

Adaptability & Longevity

Brown Swiss withstand both hot and cold climates and thrive in a variety of terrains and management systems. Their longevity, dairy strength, and outstanding feet and legs make Brown Swiss cattle the obvious choice for modern dairy farms.

There are other breeds but these are the most common ones we see.

The other dairy cow that is trying to make a comeback is the Guernsey. It is know for an exceptionally high butterfat content. It has fallen out of favor in recent years due to the golden color of the milk.

Here is information from the Livestock Conservancy website:

Today, Guernseys are medium to large in size, with cows weighing 1,400 pounds and bulls 2,000 pounds. The breed is usually horned, though polled strains have been developed. Cows are noted for their quiet dispositions. A distinctive characteristic of the breed is the golden color of its milk, which results from exceptionally high levels of carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. It is thought that the Guernsey ­excels in its ability to absorb this nutrient and transfer it to butterfat. Guernsey milk has been promoted under the trademark “Golden Guernsey.” Butter made from the milk is also distinctively golden.

Next we will discuss bottle feeding baby calves, as most dairy calves are fed this way.

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