Ayrshire Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

Breeders admire the Ayrshire cow for their low-cost, grass-based dairy production.

  • Ayrshire cow
    The Ayrshire cow is medium sized (50 to 53 inches tall when standing) and has a red-and-white combination coat that can be anywhere from white with red spots to mostly red.
    Illustration: U.S. Ayrshire Breeders' Association

  • Ayrshire cow

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.



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