Ayrshire Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Admirably low-cost, grass-based dairy production.

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The Ayrshire is the native dairy cow of Scotland and the successful survivor of several types that were still present in the early nineteenth century in the Scottish Lowlands. By the mid-1600s in the northern area of Ayrshire known as Cunningham, there was a type of cattle used for cheese making called either the Dunlop, for the name of the cheese, or the Cunningham. In 1783, these cattle were described as “mostly black, with large stripes of white along the chine or ridge of the back, about their flanks, and on their faces.” The unknown writer also remarked that they were generally ill fed and therefore small in size and production of milk. The now extinct Fife or Fifeshire was also a large, black, dual-purpose breed that had an excellent reputation as a milker.

Beginning about 1770, brown or brown-and-white Dutch cattle were imported into the area. Crossed on the local cattle, they had a positive effect on the dairy breed that would eventually be called the Ayrshire. Although there still are some black-and-white cattle in the breed, Ayrshires became standardized to a brown-and-white or red-and-white pattern.

Ayrshire breeders developed an efficient grazing cow that produced milk for butter and cheese. Careful attention was paid to udder conformation. Some breeders were interested mainly in show-ring cattle that became extremely refined in appearance, while others pursued commercial milk production herds. Eventually these two goals would be merged in the early twentieth century.

The Ayrshire was officially recognized by the Highland and Agricultural Society in 1814, although a herd book was not issued until 1877, when the Ayrshire Cattle Society was founded. Cattle from Holland, Germany, and Denmark flooded into Scotland in the mid-nineteenth century. During this time, the Ayrshire may have incorporated some crosses of Shorthorn or Channel Island cattle as well.

Ayrshire Cattle Come to the United States

The Ayrshire was also being exported. The first Ayrshires made their way to the United States in 1822 and were taken to Connecticut and other parts of New England. The breed suffered from a belief that it would not succeed as well in the United States as in Scotland. A farm handbook of 1885 suggested, “They do not yield so large a quantity of milk in this country as they do in Scotland. The chief reason for this is found in the difference of climate. Ayrshire has a moist climate–an almost continuous drizzle of rains or moisture pervading it–making fresh green pastures; a cooler and more equable temperature in summer, and warmer in winter than ours” (Jones 1885, 764). Some farmers also felt the Ayrshire was more nervous than other cows. These prejudices may have prevented its more widespread acceptance.

The American Ayrshire breed association was founded in 1875. In the 1920s and 1930s, the association ran a milk labeling program called Approved Ayrshire Milk, which was marketed directly to consumers. To demonstrate the breed’s hardiness, two cows were walked from the association headquarters in Vermont to the 1929 National Dairy Show in St. Louis. Afterward they calved and produced outstanding milk records. Eventually the Ayrshire spread beyond New England, and today the breed’s areas of popularity include New York, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, Minnesota, and Iowa.

Since the Holstein ascendancy, Ayrshire numbers have been declining steadily in the United States. Annual registrations have been cut in half since 1970, and the breed now numbers about 28,000 nationwide. Appraisals and the numbers of herds and cows on milk test programs are all lessening. The Ayrshire now accounts for about 0.3 percent of the American dairy herd. At the same time, the average milk production and solids percentage per Ayrshire cow is steadily increasing. The average cow is producing more than 15,000 pounds. The modern American Ayrshire has been influenced by the genetics now available from Canada.

Ayrshire Cattle in Canada

Scottish settlers brought the Ayrshire to Canada about the same time they arrived in New England. The Ayrshire became established in the central provinces of Quebec and Ontario, and the breed association was established in 1898. Canada continued to import Ayrshires into the twentieth century, and the government authorities promoted them even at the expense of the native Canadian.

In Canada today, the Ayrshire is second in popularity to the Holstein, although the population is much smaller. Ayrshire breeders have actively pursued breed improvement through performance testing, type classification, and the promotion of artificial insemination. The Ayrshire Breeder’s Association of Canada allows upgrading, and red-and-white Holstein additions are believed to be responsible in part for the increased height, length, weight, and productivity of the Canadian Ayrshire. Many Canadian Ayrshires are producing 22,000 pounds of milk, with 3.5 percent protein. In Canada, milk producers are paid according to milk components of fat, protein, and lactose, so that Ayrshire milk can provide greater revenues than Holstein milk. Ayrshire registrations in Canada remain stable at around 10,000 a year. The Canadian Ayrshire is the most productive branch of the Ayrshire family but is probably also the most removed from the original type.

Canada has become an important and aggressive exporter of Ayrshire genetics worldwide, including back to Scotland and Britain. Several hundred cattle are exported annually, and 40,000 to 50,000 semen doses are also sent abroad, primarily to the United States but also to Australia, Great Britain, Sweden, Cuba, India, New Zealand, Mexico, Switzerland, South Africa, and Colombia.

The Ayrshire was also exported in large numbers from Scotland to Finland and Sweden from 1847 to1923. The Finnish Ayrshire is the most numerous breed in that country. Finland now has the world’s largest population of Ayrshires and exports them elsewhere. Finnish Ayrshires were also very popular in the former Soviet Union. The Swedish Red and White, a result of crossing Sweden’s native red cattle with the Ayrshire, is the most popular breed in Sweden but is more of a dual-purpose cow.

In Scotland, the breed society employed milk production statistics very early. Scottish breeders also adopted testing for tuberculosis earlier than in Britain and could then sell their stock to British farmers, who were anxious to establish tuberculosis-tested herds in Britain. This contributed to the success of the breed in the mid-twentieth century. In Scotland, the Ayrshire continued to hold its own against the Holstein-Friesian until recently. At present, only about 1 percent of British dairy artificial insemination is drawn from Ayrshire bulls, compared to 95 percent from the Holstein.

Benefits of Ayrshires

The traditional Ayrshire is a breed that does well as a grazer and is still valued for its low-cost conversion of feedstuffs into milk. The cow produces a milk with 4 percent fat, 8.8 percent nonfat solids, a color midway between white and yellow, and small, easily digestible fat globules. Ayrshires are known for their good udder conformation and sound feet and legs. Both qualities contribute to longevity and lower replacement costs for dairy farmers. Unlike the Guernsey and Jersey, the Ayrshire does not produce a yellow-colored fat, so that its carcass value is higher.

The Ayrshire is a medium-sized breed weighing about 1,200 pounds and standing 50 to 53 inches tall. The Ayrshire coat is a red-and-white combination that can vary from mostly white with red spots to nearly all red. The red color may be dark mahogany to very light. Brindle or roan coloring is rarer today. Ayrshires have distinctive lyre-shaped horns. In the past, the horns were carefully trained to achieve a graceful, correct shape and then polished before cattle shows. Today most Ayrshires are dehorned as calves.

In spite of the Ayrshire’s success in continental Europe and in Canada, the RBST is concerned about the falling population in the United Kingdom. Similarly, in the United States the ALBC is concerned about the decline of the Ayrshire, which can be so useful in grass-based dairy operations. The Canadian Ayrshire, though much improved for production needs, has diverged from its Scottish roots. The Finnish Ayrshires have also followed their own path. Finnish and Canadian genetics have become very important in the worldwide population, including the United States and Great Britain. This influence is also a concern for the traditional Scottish Ayrshire.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses.