Most dairy cattle breeds are of European origin. Some come from the Continent and some from the British Isles as well as New Zealand. Most of our beef herds come from the British Isles, as have  some of the dual-purpose breeds.

It is the function of the breeders of purebred cattle to raise the seed stock or maintain the purebreds which can be used in the improvement of the common dairy herds. For an exceptionally productive herd, it may be very difficult to find a bull that would increase the quality of the herd.

Therefore, the problem of choosing a herd bull (sire) becomes more difficult as the quality of the herd is improved. In this lecture, it is intended to discuss choosing a breed and to examine the more important dairy breeds in a little detail.


The differences among dairy breeds are not highly related to the efficiency of production. Success in dairying is much more dependent on the management of the farm than on the breed chosen. Yet  real differences do occur in size, maturity, fat content of the milk and other important features.

The choice of cattle selection is affected by these circumstances:

  • The breeding stock available in the area, also their cost;
  • The adaptability of the selected breed to local conditions, such as climate, feed and grazing conditions;
  • Available markets and the distance of the grazing lands from the market;
  • The reproductive capacity of the breed, and its ability to produce good quality milk and;
  • Finally, the personal preference of the farmer for a specific type or breed of animal must be considered.


The differences in milk production of the various dairy breeds can be seen in the records of the official performance testing scheme. Performance testing is a concept which relates to the measured performance of the animal against a background of careful breeding and selection.


Following is a brief discussion of the common dairy breeds. As this section is dealt with in the  briefest terms, students are advised to search around for additional information. Those who are not familiar with the breeds are advised to look for illustrations and make up a scrap book of the breeds. This information can be obtained from the numerous farming magazines available. Evidence of additional reading will please the examiners.

Figure 1: Ayrshire

Source: lovelylocavoreladies.files.wordpress

This breed originated in the County of Ayr. This is located in the South Western part of Scotland. The Ayrshire is a relatively young breed, developed in the latter part of the Eighteenth Century. Ayrshire is a hilly area with heavy clay soil, moderate fertility and abundant rainfall which produce good, cultivated pastures. The principal use of the milk, in Scotland, is for the manufacture of cheese. The breed was founded from crosses of local types of cattle plus several breeds from elsewhere in Scotland. Careful selection is regarded as the main method by which improvement was accomplished.

The breed characteristics are as follows:

·         General:

Ayrshire cattle are strong and robust. They show symmetry, style and balance.

·         Colour:

Light to deep red, mahogany, brown, or a combination of any of these colours with white, or white alone.

·         Size:

A mature cow should usually weigh about 500kg, and a mature bull, about 900kg.

·         Horns:

These are inclined upwards, small at the base, refined, medium length and tapered towards the tip.

The main criticism of the breed is that short bodied, blocky cows tend to lack the ability to produce milk. Some individuals have short teats and this makes it very difficult for machine milking, which  will be discussed in a later lecture. These animals are very good grazers, especially under adverse conditions, both climatic and nutritional. They graze on roughage, veld grass and pasture grass of relatively poor quality. They produce milk with very little additional feed.

The calves are strong and hardy. The milk yield is about average in milk-fat but it does not have a very yellow colour. In brief, Ayrshires are well-adapted to economical milk production, even when climatic conditions are not the best.

Figure 2: Guernsey

Source: .sustainableguernsey.info

This breed takes its name from Guernsey which is an island near the North of France. They  originated from a cross of two stocks: the large brindle cattle of Normandy and the smaller native cattle from Brittany, France. All of the Channel Islands’ cattle were much the same in form and colour, but after the importation of cattle from France, and between Jersey and Guernsey were prohibited, two distinct breeds took form. A scale of points was adopted in 1830 which marked the beginning of the great improvement of the breed.

Both the farms and the herds are small on the Channel Islands. The type of dairying carried out is intensive. Green feed is available throughout the year.

Guernsey characteristics are summarised as follows:

·         Colour:

A shade of fawn with white marks clearly defined. Skin should show golden yellow pigmentation. When other points are equal, a clear or buff muzzle will be favoured over a smokey or black muzzle.

·         Size:

A mature cow in milking condition should weigh at least 545kg. Milking condition is: that state of flesh which cows exhibit under good dairy-farm conditions, after they have been in milk from three to six months.  A bull in breeding condition should weigh about 850kg.

·         Horns:

Inclining forward, incurving, and of medium length. Animals without horns are also referred to as ‘polled’.

The Guernsey cattle are often compared with the Jerseys. Guernseys are larger than the Jersey and are somewhat more rugged and slower-maturing. Calves at birth are small and thought by some

people to be difficult to raise. The Guernsey has an excellent temperament. It is not adequately covered in beef so it is not bred for meat. Guernsey milk is second only to the Jersey in milk fat and has an average fat content of about 4.6%. The milk and milk fat are extremely high in carotene. This accounts for the yellow milk, hence “Golden Guernsey” milk. The milk is also suitable for the production of butter.

Figure 3: Jersey

This breed takes its name from Jersey, the Channel Island on which it originated. Its origin was similar to the Guernsey. The climate in the Channel Islands is mild and pastures are green throughout the year. During the winter a small amount of concentrate is used as a food supplement.

Source: 1.bp.blogspot

The characteristics of the Jersey are as follows:

A scale of points was established in 1834, and this was followed by a marked improvement in the breed. In the breeding and selection of the Jersey, emphasis was placed on milk-fat production.

·         Colour:

A shade of fawn with or without white markings.

·         Size:

A mature cow weighs about 450kg and a bull about 550kg.

·         Horns:

Inclining forward, curving, small at the base and tapering to the tips.

There is considerable variation in the colour. While fawn is the common colour, the range may be from yellow to nearly black, but spots are not uncommon. The Jersey is the smallest of the common dairy breeds. The calves are 25kg at birth. Jersey cows produce calves for many successive years.

The milk of the breed is high in carotene which gives a characteristic yellow colour. The Jersey is a hardy animal. Jersey cattle make efficient use of pastures and concentrates, and are adapted to hot, and humid conditions.

Figure 4: Holstein – Friesian and Dutch Friesland

Source: desibucket

This breed originated in two northern countries of the Netherlands, West Friesland and North Holland. The breed is known as Holstein or Friesian.

The characteristics of the breed are as follows:

·         General:

Rugged and large in conformation. Very large udders.

·         Colour:

Black and white markings clearly defined. Solid black and solid white are less popular. There are other colour markings which are frowned upon, but these are difficult to explain.

·         Size:

A mature cow will weigh 650kg and a mature bull will weigh up to 1000kg.

·         Horns:

Inclining forward, uncurving.

These animals are a rugged breed, with great capacity for feed consumption and milk production. Calves can weigh up to 40 – 45kg at birth. They are also more beefy in conformation and are  referred to as a dual-purpose animal: i.e. they can be produced for beef as well as for milk. The male progeny can be grown out as fat steers. Cull-cows can also be fattened and sold for beef.

The breed is particularly suited to low-cost milk production because of their high capacity to convert fodder and produce milk. This economy of production and good returns for input are valuable qualities.