Dairy cows are bred for their ability to produce milk from which dairy foods are made. While there are many different breeds of cows, in the U.S., there are seven different dairy cow breeds: Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey, Milking Shorthorn, Red & White. Learn more about each breed of dairy cow below!
Origin: This breed was brought to America around 1800 from the Scottish county of Ayr.
Characteristics: Known as the “aristocrat” of dairy breeds because of their size and vigor, they are rusty-red and white in color and adapt easily to their environment.
Fun Fact: Because of their adaptability, Ayrshires are found in most parts of the world, including Southern Africa.
Origin: The Alps of Switzerland.
Characteristics: Considered the oldest of the dairy breeds, Brown Swiss can vary in color, from silver to dark brown, and are large with large ears. Their milk is ideal for making cheese because of its high protein-to-fat ratio.
Fun Fact: In Switzerland, Brown Swiss are taken to high mountain meadows in the summer. They wear large cow bells so farmers can find them in the fog!
Origin: First raised by monks on the Isle of Guernsey in the English Channel.
Characteristics: Guernsey cows can range from fawn to golden in color and often has white legs and white areas on her body.
Fun Fact: Known for their rich, golden color of milk, she was given the title “Golden Guernsey.” Their milk color is due to high levels of beta carotene (a source of vitamin A) in the milk.
Origin: The Netherlands. A Dutch settler brought the first Holstein to America in 1631.
Characteristics: This breed is the most common of the dairy breeds, and in addition to her black-and-white markings, she produces more milk than other dairy breeds.
Fun Fact: Did you know Holstein cows’ spots are like snowflakes or fingerprints? No two are exactly alike!
Origin: The Isle of Jersey in the English Channel.
Characteristics: The Jersey is the smallest of the dairy breeds and her color ranges from light to dark brown. The most heat-tolerant of dairy breeds, she produces milk with a very high butterfat content (perfect for ice cream).
Fun Fact: Borden Dairy introduced the famous Elsie the Cow, a Jersey, in 1936.
Origin: Northeastern England in the valley of the Tees River, first coming to the U.S. early in the 1780’s.
Characteristics: Milking Shorthorns are considered a dual-purpose breed that can be used for milk or beef production. Large in size, they are often white and roan in color and their milk is known for its high protein-to-fat ratio.
Fun Fact: This breed is part of the foundation for other red types of milk cows, including Swedish Red cattle and Illawarra cattle in Australia!
Red & White
Origin: The Netherlands.
Characteristics: With characteristics similar to a black-and-white Holstein, the “red” of the Red & White resembles the brown of a chestnut horse. She is known for a strong immune system and tolerance to heat.
Fun Fact: This is the most recent breed of cows to be recognized, coming into the breed family in 1964. The expression of the red color is a function of a recessive gene.
Fun Farm Facts
About 95% of U.S. dairy farms are family-owned and operated.
Milk from cows is a local food traveling from cows to you in about 48 hours.
Cows wear activity trackers which can show how much they eat, sleep, and milk. This individual care helps farmers keep their cows healthy.
Cows rest about 10 hours a day. Some lay on comfortable sand, like a beach!
Farmers work with veterinarians, animal nutritionists, soil and water conservationists, and even hoof trimmers making sure their cows are cared for.
DAIRY COWS AND SUSTAINABILITY
Dairy cows are the ultimate upcyclers! They eat byproducts that humans cannot eat, like sugar beet pulp. Some dairy farmers even partner with local businesses like grocers and stores to feed their cows products these partners are unable to sell, like expired fruit and chocolate. This reduces the food waste going into landfills.
Cow manure can be a source of energy, too! Technology like methane digesters can convert manure into biogas, a renewable fuel to help power generators or water heaters. Excess biogas can also be sold back to electric grids. Farmers also use cow manure to fertilize their crops, which reduces the need for chemical fertilizers and pesticides.