Chances are 90 percent that the milk you're drinking or the ice cream you're enjoying originated from a Holstein cow. This black-and-white bovine so dominates the dairy market that the next four most common breeds of cows make up the other 10 percent.
Holsteins, named for their native German province, aren't all black-and-white. Red-and-white is an acceptable color in the breed standard, but the black-and-white Holstein far outnumber their red and white cousins. Among the largest of dairy cows, weighing 1,500 pounds when grown, Holsteins produce milk high in protein, with a large butterfat content. A Holstein from Wisconsin holds the world record for milk production, according to the Holstein Association U.S.A.
The second most common type of cow makes up approximately 7 percent of the dairy cow population, according to the United States Environmental Protection Agency. Among the best milk producers, Jerseys originated in Britain's Jersey Islands. Averaging between 800 and 1,200 pounds at maturity, Jerseys range in color from light gray to dark brown. These cows are usually darker around the head, shoulders and hips than the rest of the body.
The red-and-white Ayrshire originates from Scotland. Once famous for their large horns, the majority of Ayrshires are now polled, or dehorned, as calves. When full-grown, Ayrshires weigh about 1,200 pounds. These efficient, tough cows calve easily and suffer from fewer feet or leg issues than other breeds. According to the United States Ayrshire Breeders' Association, the majority of Ayrshires are found in New York, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa.
Originating in Switzerland, as the name implies, the milk of the Brown Swiss cow is often used in cheesemaking. Known for their good temperament, cows aren't necessarily brown -- the breed standard permits gray and tan colors, or a beige so light the cow appears nearly white. The average cow weighs between 1,300 and 1,400 pounds at maturity. The Brown Swiss Association reports that the largest number of its cattle in the United States are in Wisconsin, Iowa and Ohio.
The fifth-most common type of cow is so relatively uncommon that it's listed with the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, an organization promoting heritage livestock breeds. This light brown to golden breed hails from the Channel Islands, in between Britain and France. The ALBC reports that breed registration in the U.S. fell by 60 percent between 1970 and 1990. These large cows average 1,400 pounds in size at maturity, producing a distinctive golden milk.
- U.S. Environmental Protection Agency: Dairy Production Systems
- Holstein Association USA: Facts about Holstein Cattle
- Oklahoma State University: Jersey Cattle
- U.S. Ayrshire Breeders' Association: Why Ayrshires
- Brown Swiss Association: Breed Facts
- American Livestock Breeds Conservancy: Guernsey Cattle
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Jane Meggitt has been a writer for more than 20 years. In addition to reporting for a major newspaper chain, she has been published in "Horse News," "Suburban Classic," "Hoof Beats," "Equine Journal" and other publications. She has a Bachelor of Arts in English from New York University and an Associate of Arts from the American Academy of Dramatics Arts, New York City.