When we think of dairy cattle, the first image that is likely to come to mind is that of the large black and white patched, tail-swinging Holstein Friesian. That’s probably because they are the most common breed of dairy cow across the globe today. In reality, there is a huge variety of dairy cows in different shapes, sizes, and colours that we’ve all likely come across at some point. But for the time-being, let’s look at the most popular dairy cow on the planet.

Holstein Friesian is by far the most common purebred dairy cow, with about 10 million registered globally out of 270 million dairy cows. They are known for their high productivity, adaptability, longevity, easy calving, friendly nature, and cost-effectiveness making them the first choice for most dairy farmers.

If you’re looking into the best dairy cows for your farm, there are a few factors to consider. Let’s delve deeper into what makes the Holstein Friesian so popular.

Holstein Friesian

Holstein Friesian dairy cows have proven themselves to be adaptable to a variety of different climates and are top producers of milk when ranked against popular dairy cow breeds. Several Holstein Friesian cows have been known to produce over 27,000 kilograms of milk in a 305 day lactation period in the past 30 years. However, an average milk yield for these cows runs between 7,500 and 10,500 per lactation.

Why are Holsteins so Popular?

Holstein Friesian is the most popular purebred across the globe and makes up 35% of all dairy cows in New Zealand. The reason they are so popular is obvious when their milk yield productivity is compared to other breeds. The second most popular dairy cow, Jersey, produces less than half the average output than that of a Holstein Friesian. Although the HF are larger cows and consume more feed, they still have a high output of milk yield compared to their consumption making them a cost-effective option. They are also resistant to stress, have a friendly disposition, exhibit a herd mentality, and enjoy the company of other herd members.

What are Holstein Friesian Cows Good For?

Holstein Friesian cows do not have the richest or creamiest milk and the butterfat content is relatively low compared to Jersey cows. However, the quantity of milk yield, their friendly and easy-going nature, and cost-effectiveness make HF cows highly desirable compared to other cow breeds.

When you consider Holstein Friesian cattle are also a large contributor to the beef industry, both domestically and internationally, you can see the appeal of this breed. They are highly sought after for their high growth percentage in the fattening sector, plus they produce meat with fine fibre, especially when cross-bred with other beef breeds.


Holstein Friesian cows originated in the Netherlands and were thought to have been selected by farmers as dairy cattle, starting around 2,000 years ago. Today, they are considered purebred, though during the Roman period, two breeds of cattle, black ones from Batavia (a Germanic tribe) and white ones from Friesland (now part of Holland), were crossed to create this new breed of cattle.

The Dutch and German breeders oversaw the development of these cattle with the goal to evolve animals best able to consume and digest grass, as this was the most abundant feed in the region. Throughout the centuries of dairy farming, the result was large, high-producing, black and white patched cattle that are now exported as the most popular dairy cow in the world and farmed in more than 150 countries.

New Zealand saw their first Holstein Friesian cow in 1884 from Britain and they quickly gained popularity. Further herds were imported from the US at the beginning of the 20th century and by 1910, breeders recognised the importance of keeping accurate pedigrees of these animals for the enhancement of their milk yields.

Cross-Breeding Cows

The most commonly cross-bred cattle are those between Holstein Friesian and Jersey cows to produce an animal with a medium size and with the best characteristics of both of these highly sought after breeds. Although the term Crossbred can refer to the progeny of any breed of cows, they most commonly refer to HF crossed with Jersey. These crossbred cattle make up 48% of the national herd in New Zealand, by far the largest breed across the country.

Crossbred cows give the best of both worlds, less feed intake, high milk yields, easy calving, excellent longevity, good-natured animals, with a rich creamy end product. The crossbred cows can take on the colourings of either breed, so they range from jet black through to a light tan.

Read Cow Breeds in NZ for Dairy Farming Part 3