Move over, dairy Holsteins and Jerseys. These popular U.S. dairy breeds are not hard to come by, but what about other parts of the world? Cattle certainly have a unique story to tell and were domesticated about 10,000 years ago from an early ancestor, the auroch. There are hundreds of different breeds of cattle bred for meat (beef), milk (dairy), both (dual-purpose), and even draft. There are many dairy cattle breeds around the world that you may not be familiar with.
Cattle come in a variety of appearances. And while the top 7 U.S dairy cattle breeds — Holstein, Red and White, Jersey, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Ayrshire, and Milking Shorthorn — might be known by many in North America, what about more global breeds or lesser known breeds on this continent?
The Holstein breed is the most popular dairy breed worldwide, but the Fleckvieh is number two. The Fleckvieh originated in the Alps region of central Europe as a dual-purpose strain of Simmental cattle, with more emphasis on milk production. It’s considered a very universal breed with both strong dairy and beef traits, along with fertility and longevity, which makes them popular as purebreds or crossed with other breeds.
The Montbeliarde is a light red and white dairy breed from the southern region of France and is related to the Fleckvieh and the Brown Swiss. It’s the second most popular dairy breed in France. It’s been distributed throughout the world and has gained interest in crossbreeding programs. The Montbeliarde is renowned for its milk production, especially for cheese, along with its functionality (especially feet and legs), adaptability, and fertility.
The Normande is a red and white breed with brown brindling (stripes) from the Normandy region in northwestern France. It was decimated by the Allied invasion of Normandy during World War II but has since made a comeback as the third most popular breed in France. There are also many Normande and Normande crosses in Colombia, Brazil, and other parts of Latin America. The breed primarily focuses on dairy traits for cheese production but maintains flavorful and high-quality beef traits along with functional traits for grazing.
Red Dairy Cattle
There are many dairy cattle breeds that fall under the “Red Breeds” umbrella. Each breed has some distinctive characteristics, but are internationally evaluated together because they can often share genetics. Popular U.S. breeds, Ayrshire and Milking Shorthorn are part of this group. The Illawarra from Australia is another member, and is known for producing large quantities of high protein milk and adaptability to various climates.
A large segment of the “Red Breeds” are part of the Nordic Red cluster, which is made up of many breeds. The Viking Red — which is made up of the Swedish Red, Finnish Ayrshire, and Danish Red –is known for its healthiness, fertility, and calving ease, and is popular in crossbreeding systems globally. The Norwegian Red focuses on combining milk production, health and fertility, with a significant population of polled (naturally hornless) animals. It’s also popular in crossbreeding systems around the world, including the U.S. The German Angler emphasizes high-quality udders that produce milk high in protein with a functional cow good for a variety of management types. The Aussie Red is known for its adaptability to various climates, health, feed efficiency, fertility, and overall productivity.
Bos indicus Dairy Cattle
The previously discussed breeds are all Bos taurus cattle, which are predominantly in the developed world and are more adapted to temperate climates. We shouldn’t forget about Bos indicus cattle, which have characteristic humps and dewlaps and are adapted to tropical climates and thus more commonly found in developing countries.
A common example is the multi-purpose Brahman, which is considered sacred in India. The Brahman is commonly crossed with Bos taurus beef breeds, such as Angus in the U.S., to increase heat tolerance and disease-resistance. The most widespread dairy Bos indicus cattle breeds are Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Tharparkar, Kankrej, Gir, Kenana, Butana, N’Dama, and Criollo.
These breeds typically produce less milk, but are uniquely heat-tolerant and resistant to tropical diseases and parasites. Specialized dairy breeds, such as Holsteins and Jerseys, can be crossed with indigenous Bos indicus breeds to help increase milk production and efficiency, while maintaining heat and disease resistance to help feed people in these regions.
Lesser Known Dairy Breeds of the U.S. and Canada
Besides the main seven dairy breeds of the U.S., a few others should be noted as being found in the U.S. and Canada. The Canadienne is a dark brown critically endangered breed found primarily in the province of Quebec, which was bred to adapt to the local environment. Dutch Belted cattle are a rare breed from Holland with a mostly black cow with a white section in the middle. The U.S. is an important source of purebred Dutch Belts, due to a high amount of crossbreeding occurring in the Holland population. Kerry cattle are a small, black, and long living breed from Ireland with a few pockets in the U.S. in Canada, but are globally considered rare. The Milking Devon is a red triple-purpose (meat, milk, draft) breed with medium-sized curved horns that survives and produces well in harsh environments. The Lineback is a rare beautifully black, red, or roan speckled breed of American origins that was originally dual-purpose, but now puts more emphasis on milk production.
This list is merely scratching the surface. There are many more dairy cattle breeds around the world, as well as many beef and dual-purpose breeds. These breeds come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and colors with various strengths and weaknesses for different regions of the world, which has contributed to the popularity or rarity of each. Dairy cattle are more than just the main breeds we see in the U.S. There’s a whole world out there of dairy cattle.
Michelle Miller, the Farm Babe, is a farmer, public speaker, and writer who has worked for years with row crops, beef cattle, and sheep. She believes education is key in bridging the gap between farmers and consumers.