Dairy cow breeds have differences

Apparently, the questions don’t stop even if the fair has. And that is OK!

Cows are something that I am definitely familiar with, but not all cows. There are breeds of cows that are raised for beef and breeds of cows that are raised for their milk production.

Don’t all female cows produce milk to feed their calves when they are born? Yes. The difference is that the dairy cow will produce more milk than the calf will drink, whereas the beef cow will only produce enough milk for her own calf.

Today’s beef cows look different than dairy cows in size and stature, but it wasn’t always that way. I am going to share some of the history of dairy cattle that I found in the 4-H Dairy Resource Handbook.

Dairy cows did not always produce as much milk or look like the dairy cows that we see today. Dairy cows first appeared in the U.S. with the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1492. Thereafter, settlers coming to America usually brought along a cow or two.

These early cows served as multi-purpose animals, providing not only milk and meat, but also serving as draft (work) animals.

Dairy farming grew and by the 1700s, there was typically a family cow that provided milk, cheese and butter for the family and some surrounding neighbors. By the mid 1800s, with more people moving into cities and towns, farmers found a larger market for their milk. This led individuals to start selecting and breeding for dairy character and milk production.

During this time, the six most common current breeds of dairy cows were imported from their native lands in large numbers. Dairy herds of 10, 20 or more cows became more common.

So, where did the cows come from?

The most common dairy cow, the Holstein, originated in the Netherlands. They are quickly recognized by their black-and-white or red-and-white markings. The large amount of milk produced makes the Holstein one of the most popular cows.

The Jersey originated on a small British island in the English Channel, off the coast of France, called the Isle of Jersey. The Jersey is the smallest of the dairy breeds. The Jersey does not produce the volume of milk that most Holsteins do, but their milk has a much higher milk fat content.

Another breed that came from the same area as the Jersey is the Guernsey. They are known for their gentle disposition. Their milk is high in beta-carotene, which gives their milk a golden color.

The Brown Swiss is thought to be one of the oldest dairy breeds in the world. Switzerland is the home of the Brown Swiss.

The terrain of Switzerland is high and mountainous, which leaves very little room for tillable agriculture. Therefore more attention was given to cattle breeding and development of the cheese industry. What resulted was and animal with a lot of dairy strength, excellent feet and legs, the ability to produce large volumes of high protein milk, longevity, and the ability to withstand a wide range of climate conditions.

The Ayrshire originated in the county of Ayr in Scotland, a cross of several native cattle breeds. Ayrshires are hardy and can handle cold climates very well. The milk composition is well suited for cheese and butter production.

The sixth breed of dairy cattle is the milking shorthorn, which originated in northeastern England in the valley of the Tees River. These animals were referred to as Durhams and favorites of the early settlers because they provided milk, meat and work. This is one type of dairy cow that can still be raised for beef production.

Today’s modern dairy industry has grown and developed from these small beginnings. The conformation of dairy cows has changed greatly, along with the tremendous increase in milk production. Considering that there are fewer dairy farmers and fewer dairy cows, it is a good thing. Now when you drink milk or have that ice cream cone, you have a little history to think about.

Mary Smallsreed is a member of Trumbull County Farm Bureau and grew up on a family dairy farm in northeast Ohio.