Dairy Cattle Breeds: Characteristics & More

Dairy Cows

Types of Dairy Cows

Dairy cows are bred for their ability to produce milk from which dairy foods are made. While there are many types 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!

Learn More About the Breeds of Dairy Cows

Ayrshire

Origin: This breed was brought to America around 1800 from the county of Ayr in Scotland.

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.

Brown Swiss

Origin: The Alps of Switzerland.

Characteristics: The Brown Swiss is 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!

Guernsey

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.

Holstein

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. Holsteins have the black-and-white markings typically associated with dairy cows. Holsteins also have better milk production than other dairy breeds.

Fun Fact: Did you know Holstein cows’ spots are like snowflakes or fingerprints? No two are exactly alike!

Jersey

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.

Milking Shorthorn

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. This includes Swedish Red cattle and Illawarra cattle in Australia!

Red & White

Origin: The Netherlands.

Characteristics: Knowing that Red and White dairy cattle generally carry strong Holstein genetics, their origin and history are that of their black and white relatives, except their spots are red.

Fun Fact:This is the most recent breed of cows to be recognized, coming into the breed family in 1964. Red and White dairy cattle are unique animals among those recognized through the Purebred Cattle Association because they can have genetics from several different breeds of dairy cows. Most Red and White cows are Holstein cattle, but they may also have genetics from other cattle that have reddish coats, such as Milking Shorthorns or Ayrshire.

Frequently Asked Questions

How much milk does a cow produce per day? How do cows ‘upcycle’? Do dairy farmers care about their cows? Why would a dairy farmer use antibiotics, and does it get into milk? Are dairy farms sustainable? How is the dairy industry becoming more sustainable?

Learn the answers to those questions and more by visiting our Farm Life FAQ and Dairy Sustainability FAQ pages!

Dairy Cow Upcycling graphic

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.

More Resources on Dairy Farming

Virtual Farm Tour

Take a tour of a real-life dairy farm through our interactive experience or watch a video of a Missouri dairy farm tour.

Meet Our Dairy Farmers

For generations, Midwest Dairy farm families have been producing fresh, nutritious milk. Learn more about these farmers.

Dairy Coloring Book

Learn more about dairy and dairy farming in the pages of the new Undeniably Dairy coloring book.

Dairy for Educators Resources

From lesson plans to classroom activities and programs, we have what educators need.

More FREE Dairy Resources

In need of additional educational resources for your classroom? Check out our downloadable resources.