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The History of the Holstein

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The Holstein breed of dairy cattle is renowned for milk production and recognized by its distinctive black-and-white or red-and-white markings. The history of the modern breed starts in two northern provinces of the Netherlands: North Holland and Friesland, but the breed's origins go back to the Neolithic period and the start of cattle domestication.

Cattle Domestication

The ancestors of modern cattle were wild aurochsen. Recent genetic research by European scientists shows that domestication of the aurochs in the Near East around 10,000 years ago was among the most important developments of the Neolithic period. People living in the area that now is modern-day Turkey migrated into the Balkans, Greece and northern central Europe around 6,400 years ago, bringing their cattle with them.

Dutch Origins

The Holstein breed's history goes back 2,000 years, according to the Holstein Association USA. Germanic tribes settling in the northern regions of what is the modern-day Netherlands sought to develop cattle that would maximize efficient use of grazing land. They interbred black cattle of the Batavians with the white cattle of the Frisians, who lived around the coastal areas of the Rhine river. Contemporary DNA research shows that the Holstein breed's genetic makeup matches what historians know about early human settlements.

American Holsteins

The Holstein breed first was brought to the United States in the 1850s. A growing American population brought increased demand for milk, and the Dutch breed's reputation for high yields of quality milk made the breed attractive to American cattle breeders and dairymen. Winthrop Cheney, a Massachusetts cattle breeder, is credited with introducing the Holstein to America. In 1852, he bought a cow from the captain of a Dutch ship in Boston harbor. He was so impressed with the cow's milk that he imported many more of the breed between 1857 and 1861, and other cattlemen joined in until an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in mainland Europe put a halt to the importation of Holsteins to the U.S. By then, 8,800 Holsteins had been imported to the U.S., a sufficient number for the start of an American breeding program.

A Winning Breed

Winning a competition is a one way to get good publicity. In 1887, at a fair in Madison Square Garden, dairy farmers were invited to see which of the top dairy breeds could produce the most milk and butter in a day. The smart money was on the Holstein to win the milk competition, but the Jersey owners were sure they'd win the butter production. However, a Holstein cow named Clothilde won both competitions. The silver cup she received is at the headquarters of the Holstein Association USA.