Bovine Basics: Cattle Breeds

When most people think of a cow, they probably picture that Chic-Fil-A Holstein. The irony is that while many Holsteins do enter the beef supply, they are not considered a beef breed. Cattle come in countless different breeds with two primary purposes. There are dairy breeds focusing on efficient milk production, beef breeds focusing on efficient beef production, and dual purpose breeds which feature characteristics of both beef and dairy breeds.

There are seven major dairy breeds: Holsteins, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Milking Shorthorn and Red and White Holsteins. That said, there are people milking other breeds as well as crossbreds (cows with ancestors from multiple different breeds). I always try to only tell my own story, so if you want to read about all seven breeds, there is some basic info here. Popular beef breeds include Angus, Hereford, Longhorn, Simmental, Limousin and Charolais, but there are many others. Worldwide, over 250 different breeds of cattle are recognized.

In 2012, when we took over the farm and started this blog, things were pretty boring in our pens and pasture. We only had dairy cows, and they were all Holsteins (those classic black with white/white with black patterned cows used in marketing campaigns like Chic-Fil-A’s). Over the past 8 years, we’ve diversified a little bit. The Holsteins are still in the majority, but we’ve started a small beef herd by crossbreeding with Angus, and we’ve added some color to the dairy herd with Red and White Holsteins (through breeding) and some Jerseys (though buying, and then breeding).

Continuing to celebrate the stars of June Dairy Month (The Cows!), below is a quick summary of each breed we raise and why. I’ve also included a photo of each breed taken in our pasture this week. This pasture is home to our dry cows, bred heifers, and beef cows.

Black and White Holsteins

Holstein dry cow.

These classic looking cows are still the standard in the dairy industry. They make the most milk, and have the most widely-available genetics. They’re also one of the larger stature breeds. We attempt to focus on a more moderate stature in breeding our Holsteins, but we still have some cows that stand taller than I am. Our herd started with Holsteins, and we’ve got some great families we’re pretty attached to, so I don’t see them going anywhere anytime soon.

Red and White Holsteins

Red and white Holstein bred heifer.

I don’t really think red and whites are technically a different breed than black and white Holsteins, but they are visually distinct. The Red and Whites have brown/reddish hair (called red) in place of black in their patterns. Someday I’ll convince my mom that they are not brown. I believe the trait originally became popular for improved heat tolerance compared with traditional black and white Holsteins, but we really introduced these traits just for fun. Most red and white cattle result from a recessive red (vs. dominant black) gene, but most of ours actually resulted from a more rare dominant red gene. We currently have just 2 red cows and 1 red heifer.


Jersey bred heifer.

The third and final dairy breed in our herd is Jersey. These girls are lovable little brown cows. Jerseys are quite a bit smaller than their Holstein herdmates, and they make less milk but that milk contains higher percentage of fat and and protein. Our pricing is based on these components, so Jersey milk is actually more valuable than Holstein milk (on average). They eat less, too, and feed is by far our biggest expense. We’ve added Jerseys as somewhat of a trial, but we keep adding more, so I think it’s safe to say the trial is going well. As an added bonus, Jerseys are known for their playful nature, and they’re quite entertaining. Currently we have 10 Jersey cows and 9 Jersey heifers.

Beef Cows (Angus x Holstein)

Angus x Holstein cow with her 75% Angus steer calf.

While the Jerseys and Red and Whites add diversity to our dairy herd, they don’t really add any diversity to our business. In the interest of some financial diversity, a few years ago we started crossbreeding some of our Holsteins to Angus bulls and started a small beef herd. We chose Angus because they are 100% polled (naturally hornless) and 100% black, both of which add value to the calves. The resulting cows are almost entirely black, and they are a little smaller than the Holsteins but bigger than the Jerseys. Unlike our dairy girls, they raise their own calves until weaning. After weaning the calves are then are either raised to join the herd or are finished for beef. We currently have 8 beef cows, 9 beef heifers and 3 beef steers.

While each breed certainly has it’s strengths and weaknesses, many of these are nuances, at least between breeds with the same overall purpose. I think choosing a breed (or breeds) mainly comes down to personal preferences and, to a lesser extent, market demand. Cattle breeders, just like any other group of people, are diverse, and they want, need, and like different things. With over 250 breeds to choose from whatever those wants, needs, and desires are – there’s probably a breed for that!

If you’re curious about the terms cow, heifer, and steer – check out last week’s Bovine Basics: They’re not all cows.

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