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  • Writer's pictureSuzie Anne

All About Cows: A US Breed Breakdown

Last week was a birds-eye view of the US Dairy Industry (if you missed it click here to open the post in a new tab) and this week begins the more in-depth explorations of the different aspects of dairy farming. First up is cows. This will be an overview of the top breeds in the US, the breeds’ defining characteristics, what each breed is prized for, and a look at what breeds are represented on the McKaig family farm.

Holstein cow
Dimple, a Holstein on our farm.

As stated last week, Holsteins are the long-reigning queens of the US Dairy Industry. They are most commonly black-and-white but there are also animals which are red-and-white, though they are now recognized as a separate breed from the black-and-white Holsteins. The Holstein is known for its production of large quantities of milk, (it adds the most water to the milk) and is, on average, the largest dairy breed. A DHI (Dairy Herd Improvement) report from 2018 found that 81.4% of the reported dairy cows in the US were Holstein. The next most populous breed was Jersey.

Jersey Cow
Picture of a Jersey cow from Canva.

Jerseys are one of the top breeds at producing high solids milk with their ability to add lots of butterfat. They range in color from a light, golden brown to a red-brown to a deep brown that can almost appear black. They are also one of the smallest breeds, but tend to make up for any lack in size with their bossy nature and penchant for mischief. In 2018 they were listed as making up 12.2% of the US dairy population.The third most populous group is the crossbreeds.

Crossbred cow and calf.
Peggy, a HoJo crossbreed, and her baby.

The Crossbreeds are the only group which has seen a dramatic enough increase in population numbers since 1990 to drastically move up in population percentage. In fact, they were the lowest represented group in the 1990s. The reason for the increase is due in large part to increased problems with health and reproduction in purebred animals, as well as the discovery that crossbred animals are around 33% more likely to exhibit the best traits from each parent, resulting in an overall better animal. This phenomenon is called hybrid vigor and the best results are seen when a rotation of three breeds is used in a crossbreeding program. Crossbreds represented 5.2% of the population in 2018, with Brown Swiss ranking fourth at 0.52%.

Red and white calf
Olanna, one of our HoJoNos

On our family farm there are currently a majority of Holsteins, which was the only breed for around 53 years. However, like many farms in the US, we have begun crossbreeding to improve the herd. We chose Jerseys as the first cross to help improve the solids content of our milk, as well as for their greater feed efficiency due to being smaller. About 15% of our herd are crossbreds currently. The third breed chosen was Norwegian Reds. This breed is less common, and not one of seven major dairy breeds, but they exhibit good hardiness and reproductive traits, which can be a problem for all purebreds due to inbreeding. We currently have only three HoJoNo’s (Holstein-Jersey-Norwegian Red cross) because the crossbreeding program is relatively young; the calves are cuties!

Be sure to leave any questions you have about cows and dairy farming in the comments, as well as topics you would like covered in future posts. The links below are for the sources I used in writing this, so you may visit them to learn more!

Have a moo-velous day and keep magic in the mundane!


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