When you think of a dairy cow, the mental picture that pops up in your brain probably depicts a black and white bovine with a shiny coat and an eraser-pink nose. There’s no doubt Holsteins are the most common dairy cow, but they’re not the only breed of cattle that produce dairy products. Holsteins, Jerseys, Guernseys, Ayrshires, Brown Swiss, Milking Shorthorns and Dutch Belted are the seven major dairy cow breeds, and they can all be found in Washington state.
In fact, Washington boasts about 480 dairy farms with nearly 262,000 contented dairy cows. And with a little help, you’ll be able to identify the different types of cows you see when driving by your local dairy.
Holsteins: the most popular of all the dairy cow breeds, Holsteins are black and white (and sometimes red). Their markings are like human fingerprints: no Holsteins have the same markings. Holsteins are the most common dairy cow because they tend to produce more milk than all the other breeds.
Jerseys: Jersey cows, named for the British isle of Jersey where they originated, are most often brown or tawny with a light-colored underbelly and dark hooves. Their milk is the richest of all the dairy cows and high in butterfat, making it the ideal milk for the production of butter and cheese.
Guernseys: also known as the Royal Breed because of the golden color of their milk. The golden color is due to an exceptionally high content of beta carotene, a source of Vitamin A. Guernseys themselves are also a golden color and can have white markings. As their name suggests, Guernseys were originally bred on the British Channel Island of Guernsey.
Ayrshires (pronounced air-sheer): Ayrshires are reddish-brown with many spots. They were first bred in the Scottish County of Ayr and arrived in America in 1822.
Brown Swiss: this breed native to Switzerland (if you needed us to spell it out) is one of the oldest in existence. Their color varies from light-to-dark brown and sometimes gray, but they are easily recognized by their large furry ears. Brown Swiss have a very kind nature.
Milking Shorthorns: once known as Durhams, were imported from Northeastern England. Washington’s dairy farming tradition actually began in 1836 when Dr. Marcus Whitman brought 16 Durham cows to serve the mission he established in Walla Walla. Milking shorthorns can be red, red with white marking, white or roan
Dutch Belted: a Dutch belted cow may be the easiest dairy cow to identify because of the wide “belt” of white around its middle section. It is estimated that there are less than 300 Dutch Belted cattle in the United States.
Each breed is a different size, shape and color; but now that you’ve met our dairy cow family, you should be able to tell them apart when you see them grazing in a nearby field.