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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

Three Ayrshire cows grazing in field at Prince Edward Island, Canada


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.

Brown swiss dairy cow stands proudly in a pasture, tall and long legs, fully in focus, blue sky, standing on green grass in a meadow

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.

Guernsey cows in field


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.

Holstein Dairy Cow


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.

Jersey cows in pasture


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).

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.

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.

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 of Carlson Dairy Farm!

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.