Dairy Cattle Breeds: An Illustrated Guide

This guide to the classic breeds of milk cows is the perfect starting point for deciding which breed is right for your small farm.
By the MOTHER EARTH NEWS editors
September/October 1989

Ayrshire
ILLUSTRATION: KAY HOLMES STAFFORD
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Ayrshire

Vigorous and hardy, Ayrshires graze in sun, rain and cold when others might seek shelter. Their butterfat-laden milk is ideal for making cheese. Average mature weight: 1,200 pounds (cow) and 2,000 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 14,000 pounds. Average butterfat content: 3.90%. This breed is productive for many years and has an ideal udder shape. American Minor Breeds Conservancy Status: Watch, which indicates less than 5,000 registrations per year or a declining population.

Brown Swiss

Second to the Holstein in milk production (when well fed), and a fair beef animal too, this is one of the oldest of cattle breeds. Average mature weight: 1,500 pounds (cow) and 2,100 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 14,400 pounds. Average butterfat content: 4.00%. This breed is calm and heavily muscled, and produces milk that is excellent for cheese. AMBC Status: Numerically strong.

Dexter

The smallest of North American breeds, Dexters are heat- and cold-tolerant, accept poor pasture and produce both milk and tasty beef. Average mature weight: 650 pounds (cow) and 800 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 7,500 pounds. Average butterfat content: 4.10%. This breed can be outwintered and eats 40% less than larger breeds. AMBC Status: Minor, meaning less than 1,000 registrations per year.

Dutch Belted

Though brought to the U.S. in 1840 by P. T. Barnum solely for exhibition, these striking cattle are fine, prolific milkers. Average mature weight: 1,100 pounds (cow) and 2,000 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 10–12,000 pounds. Average butterfat content: 3.5–40% . This breed is gentle and calves easily. It was first bred by Dutch nobility. AMBC Status: Rare, which means less than 200 are registered per year.

Guernsey

This easy-to-manage breed is named (as is the Jersey) for the small Channel island on which it originated. Its milk is a rich golden yellow. Average mature weight: 1,100 pounds (cow) and 1,600 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 10,000 pounds. Average butterfat content: 4.80%. This breed is gentle and can be tethered; its calves are often small at birth. AMBC Status: Watch (less than 5,000 registrations per year or a declining population).

Holstein

Once scorned for its bland "blue" milk, the high-output Holstein now accounts for 90% of all U.S. dairy cattle and 95% of all commercial milk. Average mature weight: 1,500 pounds (cow) and 2,200 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 17,000 pounds. Average butterfat content: 3.50%. This breed is the best milk producer; however, it needs rich pasture and lots of room. AMBC Status: Numerically strong.

Jersey

Intelligent and personable, the soulful-eyed Jersey matures early and lives long, producing a steady, family-sized supply of buttery milk. Average mature weight: 900 pounds (cow) and 1,400 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 9,500 pounds. Average butterfat content: 52%. This breed produces milk with the highest butterfat content. It is hardy and can be tethered. AMBC Status: Numerically strong.

Kerry

Brought here from Ireland in 1818, this robust, once-popular breed all but vanished in the 1930s. Only four Kerries, recent imports, are now in the U.S. Average mature weight: 825 pounds (cow) and 1,200 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 7,500 pounds. Average butterfat content: 4.00%. This breed is active, hardy, and a good forager, and yields very sweet milk. AMBC Status: Rare (less than 200 registered per year). 

Milking Devon

Favored by settlers as triple-purpose milk-meat-and-draft animals, these cows are good foragers, able to thrive on marginal land. Average mature weight: 800 pounds (cow) and 1,000 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 7,500 pounds. Average butterfat content: 5.00%. This breed is alert and docile and yields over 60% usable beef. AMBC Status: Rare (less than 200 registered per year).

Milking Shorthorn

Known as Durham or Teeswater cattle by early American settlers, this productive milk-and-beef breed once also served as oxen. Average mature weight: 1,400 pounds (cow) and 2,100 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 10,000 pounds. Average butterfat content: 3.70%. This breed is a good milker and puts on flesh quickly, providing tasty beef. AMBC Status: Watch (less than 5,000 registrations per year or a declining population).

Red Poll

Once dual-purpose but now bred mostly for their tasty beef, Red Polls produce plenty of milk for a family—and for raising a calf. Average mature weight: 1,200 pounds (cow) and 2,000 pounds (bull). Average milk per year: 8,500 pounds. Average butterfat content: 4.00%. This breed is docile and quiet, and does well on light forage. AMBC Status: Watch (less than 5,000 registrations per year or a declining population).


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