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    7 Best Dairy Cattle Breeds

    Authored by Katie Navarra

    Technically, all cow breeds produce milk after calving. However, not all cattle breeds are efficient at producing a volume of milk worth the efforts of production. Learning about most common dairy cow breeds in the United States, and specifically within your region, can help you decide which breed is the best fit for your dairy operation.

    Factors to consider when choosing dairy cattle

    Most importantly, consider your end goal, said Jennifer Bentley, Iowa State University extension and outreach dairy field specialist.

    She suggests asking yourself:

    • What is your goal in producing milk?
    • Where is your market? 
    • Are you in a fluid-based or cheese market?

    “Most producers are now getting paid predominately for components (fat/protein), so you have to think about how you can maximize this with the breed you are using?” she added.

    Another crucial factor is your facility. If you’re working with an existing barn and milking parlor, you want to be sure the breed you choose is not too big or small for the housing setup.

    “Cow comfort is a priority in keeping cows healthy and clean and producing high amounts of milk. If the stall size is too big, they can use them inappropriately, turn around in them, defecate/urinate in the stall verses in the alley,” she said. “If stall size is too small, they can increase their risk of injury getting in and out of the stall, or they may choose not to utilize the stall at all.”

    Cow comfort is the priority. They must have a comfortable space to lie down as they spend most of their day lying down and this is when they are producing milk.

    Cattle managment environmental considertions

    How you choose to manage the cows can decide which breed is the best fit. Bentley said that while Holsteins are the largest breed and produce the most milk, they are not as heat tolerant.

    “If you’re using cattle in a dairy grazing operation where they are out in pasture most of the time, Holsteins may not be the best option,” she said. “Small to mid-sized breeds, like Jerseys, are heat tolerant and have more grazing like qualities. Some producers will cross breed particularly in grazing situations, maximize reproduction, moderate body size, and maximize milk components.”

    7 dairy cattle breeds in the United States

    Like with dog and horse breeds, cattle breeds are known for having unique characteristics and traits. Knowing these attributes can help you decide which is the right fit for your farm.


    Holstein cattle are the most popular dairy breed and produce the greatest quantity of milk, said Bentley. Their distinctive black and white coats make them easy to spot, though some may also be red and white. They are the largest dairy breed with mature animals averaging 1,500 pounds. Also called Holstein Friesian, the breed originated in Holland and was imported to the United States in the 1850s.


    Jersey cows produce more pounds of milk per pound of bodyweight than any other breed and have high components (fat/protein), Bentley explained. “It is common for herds to be crossbred with Holstein to get the benefits of milk production and high butterfat,” she said. 

    A Jersey cow ranges in color from a medium brown to grey or nearly black and an adult weights 800 to 1,200 pounds. Their large eyes, broad faces and long eyelashes make this breed appealing to many people. The breed comes from a small British Island that is close to France.

    Brown Swiss

    Brown Swiss are often considered the oldest breed of milking cow worldwide tracing back to 4,000 B.C., according to some historians. Farmers on the northeast mountaintops of Switzerland put bells around the cow’s necks so they could easily be found in dense fog. “Brown Swiss are known for outstanding feet and legs, longevity,” Bentley said.


    Ayrshire are medium sized cows, recognized for good udder conformation, Bentley said. Originally from the Scotland’s County of Ayr, the reddish-brown mahogany colored breed is known for being rugged and hardy. 


    Guernsey cattle are also known for having high components (fat/protein) and have a gene that is good for cheese processing, according to Bentley. The breed’s intermediate size allows them to consume 20-30 percent less feed per pound of milk produced than larger breeds. 

    “Very commonly, they are found in their own herds and not mixed with other breeds of dairy cattle,” she said.

    Milking Shorthorns

    Milking Shorthorns were the first milking cattle to be imported to the United States when they were brought from England in 1783 where the originated in the Valley of the Tees River in Northeastern England. The breed is often classified as the most versatile breed because of its grazing efficiency, disease resistance, calving interval, and milk quality. 

    Red and White Holstein

    Red and White Holstein cattle are the most recently added dairy breed officially recognized in 1964. Traditionally, Holstein breeders excluded red and white cattle from registration. Farmers in the United States and Canada drawn to the red and white spotted or roan coat began selectively breeding for the recessive red hair color.

    Double duty

    The seven breeds highlighted here are classified as the major dairy breeds in the United States. Other dairy cattle, such as the Dutch Belted, Dexter, Normande, and others, and those with mixed heritage can be found on dairy operations too. While many dairy farmers only keep the heifers to become part of the milking herd, others also raise the bulls, which are castrated and raised as beef.