Although Holstein Friesian and Jersey cows are considered to be some of the best breeds for dairy production and make up a majority of the world’s herds, there are other well-liked breeds to discuss.
Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Fleckvieh, Guernsey and Milking Shorthorn are all well-loved breeds of dairy cattle with long milk-producing histories. Each breed has its own unique qualities and benefits and they are greatly loved and appreciated by the dairy farmers that rear them.
Some breeds are hardier than others in difficult terrain while others have stronger bodies making them less predisposed to disease. These factors may play a role in whether they are the right breed for you and your farm.
Originating in the area of the same name in Southwest Scotland, Ayrshire cattle typically have red and white colourings and are of moderate size, reaching around 550kg at maturity. Likely to do with the climate and terrain of their native land, they are known as hardy, strong, and adaptable cows. Few other breeds can match the ability of the Ayrshire to rustle and forage for themselves under adverse feeding or climate conditions.
The Ayrshire breed is renowned for its high milk yields, with top producing cows regularly exceeding 9,000 kilograms of milk in their lactation. Other benefits of the Ayrshire breed include their lack of genetic diseases, top udder quality, longevity, ease of calving, and their aforementioned hardiness. Their milk composition is also ideally suited for the production of butter and cheese. New Zealand has the second largest Ayrshire population in the world, making up 1% of the national herd.
One of the oldest known dairy cow breeds, dating back four millennia, is the Brown Swiss. They are the second largest dairy cow breed worldwide with 8 million registered cattle. Originating from the north-eastern corner of Switzerland, they are light brown or greyish in colour, commonly with a white muzzle, dark nose, and dark blue eyes. Brown Swiss cattle descended from beef bred Braunvieh cattle, who were also high milk-producing cows. Breeders developed some of the top milk-producing cattle for dairy purposes and, over several centuries, produced the Brown Swiss dairy cows. Breeders of Brown Swiss benefit from the best fat-to-protein ratio of any of the dairy breeds, which is best for cheese production.
They are one of the largest dairy breeds and are adaptable to a wide variety of climates. Known widely for their strong legs, high production, and longevity, these cattle are robust. They are prolific breeders and are adaptable with a well-balanced build and good hooves and limbs.
Fleckvieh cattle originated in Austria in the 19th century by crossbreeding local cattle with Simmental for the dual purpose of both milk and beef. Ranging from red and white in colour to predominantly red, they are medium to large in size reaching up to 800 kilograms at maturity. The Fleckvieh breed can produce up to 9,000 kilograms of milk during lactation with 4.2% fat and 3.7% protein.
They are well known for their udder health, longevity, somatic cell count, adaptability, fertility, and milking speed. In recent years through breed development, the milk yields of Fleckvieh has begun to rival those of pure milk producing breeds. These cattle are still widely used in the meat industry, either purebred or crossed with other breeds.
Originating in the Channel Islands between England and France, Guernsey cattle are named after the most western of the islands. Though smaller than most dairy cattle, they can reach up to 500kg at maturity. They range in colour from yellow to reddish-brown with white patches.
Guernsey cattle are known to be efficient converters of grass to milk, which comes out in a rich yellow colour giving this breed the nickname “Golden Guernsey.” Guernseys produce their high-quality milk while consuming 20% to 30% less feed per kilogram of milk produced compared to larger dairy breeds. Other traits include good adaptability to management systems and climates, calving ease, easy-going temperate nature, and high milk flow. More than half of all Guernseys carry the Kappa Casein ‘B’ gene. This provides real economic benefits in cheese-making, giving a firmer curd, increased volume, and better cheese characteristics.
Milking Shorthorn originated in the North East of England and adapt well to other countries across the globe. A moderately sized cow, their colours range from red, to red and white, to white or roan (a very close mixture of red and white only found in this breed). The Milking Shorthorn can reach up to 950kg at maturity. This breed has been known to produce in excess of 9,000 kilograms of milk per 305 days on low input management.
Milking Shorthorn first came to New Zealand in 1814 as multipurpose cattle for meat, milk, and transport. Herds for milking were established in 1840 and became the most popular breed of dairy cows in New Zealand until 1920, when Jersey cows surpassed them. Since then, numbers of Milking Shorthorn have slowly diminished, yet they can still be found across the country.
This breed is most notable for its favourable protein to fat ratio ideal for cheese. They are also admired for their longevity, durability, calving ease, and fertility, proving a versatile animal well-suited to a wide variety of production environments.