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Best Dairy Cow Breeds For Your Farm or Homestead

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Choosing the best dairy cow breeds for your farm or homestead can make a significant impact in the milk production and quality you receive in return. Each breed has unique strengths and characteristics that suit different types of dairy farmers. Keep reading to learn about my personal experience with breeds of dairy cows, and some basic information about the most common types.

woman with miniature jersey cow in field

My Experience with Dairy Cow Breeds

Our family has experience with owning and milking jersey cows. We had a miniature jersey cow that produced 1.5-2 gallons of milk per day, the perfect quantity for our family of six, with enough left over to barter every now and then with our neighbors

Our cow, Beulah, had an excellent temperament and we enjoyed milking her by hand in the mornings and evenings. That’s the thing about having a dairy cow—it forces you to get outside every day, even in the wintertime. Owning a cow is a great way to get into a solid routine.

We only have first hand experience with jersey cattle. And they are a popular choice among smaller farmers and homesteaders, but that isn’t to say it’s the only breed of dairy cow you should consider.

If your main goal is high milk production, Holsteins are truly unmatched. Within the United States, they are the most popular breed in the commercial dairy industry. However, many smaller farmers and homesteaders choose not to raise holstein cattle for various reasons. They are larger, have less feed efficiency, and their milk contains a lower percentage of butterfat.

If you’re looking for rich, creamy milk high in butterfat, the Jersey breed might be your best bet. These smaller cows are known for their friendly nature and efficient feed conversion. On the other hand, Guernsey cows produce distinctive golden-colored milk, courtesy of their high beta-carotene levels, making their milk a rich source of vitamin A.

Anyway, these are some basics. Let’s dive a little deeper into the characteristics of the major breeds of dairy cattle and how to find the best breed for your farm or homestead.

watering trough in field with miniature jersey dairy cow

Characteristics of Leading Dairy Breeds

Different dairy cow breeds offer diverse benefits. Each breed is unique in its production capacity, milk quality, or dual-purpose use.

Holstein: High Volume Producers

  • Holstein cows are known for their impressive milk production, which can be up to 9 gallons of milk per day.
  • They have a distinctive black and white or red and white pattern.
  • They’re large, sometimes weighing around 1,500 pounds.
  • You might notice their friendly and gentle temperament, making them good for large dairy farms.
  • Holsteins are popular in the U.S. due to their high volume of production. Their milk has less butterfat compared to other breeds, making it lower in fat.
red holstein with black holstein cows in field

Jersey: Rich Milk Quality

  • Jersey cows produce milk rich in butterfat and protein. Jersey milk butterfat content can be over 5%, meaning you’re going to get a lot of cream. This butterfat content makes their milk perfect for making your own cheese, butter, and ice cream.
  • They are on the smaller side, usually weighing between 800 to 1,200 pounds.
  • These cows are mostly light brown but can vary from fawn with white spots to a solid dark brown.
  • Their gentle nature and smaller size make them easier to handle. They are quite productive despite their size and are known for their efficient feed conversion, and ability to thrive on just grass.
jersey cow with nursing spotted calf in field

Guernsey: Golden Milk

  • Guernsey cows are desired for their rich, golden-colored milk. This milk has high beta-carotene levels, which gives it a yellow tint.
  • They weigh around 1,000 to 1,200 pounds and are typically red and white.
  • They are docile, making them one of the easiest dairy cattle breeds to manage on a family farm.
  • Guernsey milk has a good balance of butterfat and high protein content, around 4.5% butterfat and 3.6% protein, making it ideal for consumption and processing.
guernsey cows grazing in field

Dexter: Dual-Purpose

  • Dexter cows are known for their dual-purpose nature, good for both milk and meat production.
  • A smaller breed, weighing between 600 to 1,000 pounds. Their coats can be black, red, or dun.
  • Hardy and adaptable to various climates.
  • Their milk has about 4% butterfat, suitable for household dairy needs.
  • When bred with a jersey cow, they create a unique crossbreed called Belfair.
  • Dexter cows are friendly and easy to manage, making them great for small farms and homesteads. They won’t give as large quantities of milk in comparison to other breeds, but they make up for it with their versatility.
dexter cow in field with tag

Brown Swiss: The Gentle Giants

  • Brown Swiss cows are named for the fact that they originate from the Swiss Alps.
  • Calm and gentle nature.
  • They are large, often weighing up to 1,500 pounds.
  • Their milk is high in both protein and butterfat, about 4% butterfat and 3.5% protein.
  • Known for longevity and productivity.
  • An excellent choice for both large and small dairy operations due to their steady milk production and mild temperament.
brown swiss cows grazing on hill

A couple other breeds to round out this list would be the Ayrshire breed and the milking shorthorn, although they are less popular.

Caring for Dairy Cows

To ensure your dairy cows remain healthy and productive, focus on proper feeding, maintaining their health, and managing their breeding correctly. This will vary somewhat from breed to breed, but not significantly.

All dairy breeds need a balanced diet, although some, like jersey and Brown Swiss cattle, fare better with more grass and less grain. High-quality feed is crucial for milk production. Use a mix of properly-stored hay, good pasture, and grains. Ensure your cows get enough protein and fat to meet their energy needs and produce as many pounds of milk as you need them to.

Include vitamins and minerals to boost their immune system. Fresh water should always be available to keep them hydrated. The amount of feed may vary with different cow breeds and environmental conditions. In general, larger cows need more feed. But keep an eye on their body condition, and adjust their diets accordingly.

Keeping cows healthy is key to their longevity. Regular vet check-ups can help with catching illnesses early. Clean and comfortable housing reduces stress and the risk of infections.

Any breed of cow will require you to monitor their health indicators, like milk yield and body temperature. Provide plenty of space for exercise and protect them from cold and heat stress if you live in a harsh climate. Maintaining a clean environment helps reduce mastitis and other udder infections. Remember, a healthy cow will have a longer productive life, regardless of the breed!

Providing good nutrition and care will help to ensure high fertility. Certain cow breeds may have slightly different breeding needs. An interesting fact I learned when I was first learning about dairy cows is that gestation periods can vary slightly among breeds. For example, the average gestation for a jersey cow is 278 days, while average gestation for a Brown Swiss is 292 days.

small child pointing at cow

Market Trends and Demand For Dairy Breeds

Today’s market trends show a growing interest in A2A2 genetics and smaller dairy breeds due to their unique benefits. These trends impact milk production, farm management, and the availability of certain breeds.

The A2A2 genetic trait in cows is gaining popularity. Cows with A2A2 genes produce milk with only A2 beta-casein protein, which some people find easier to digest. This milk is often marketed as a healthier option. For the record, our family has had A1A1, A1A2, and A2A2 milk and we haven’t noticed much difference. But I fully understand that some people may be more sensitive.

Consumers looking for better digestion and reduced inflammation are pushing the demand for A2A2 milk. The benefit of investing in A2A2 cows is it can open new markets if you are looking to sell the milk. Many breeds, like Jersey and Guernsey, often have this genetic trait, making them more sought after.

Smaller cow breeds like Jersey and Dexter are also getting attention from smaller farmers and homesteaders. These breeds require less feed and space, which is ideal for farms with limited resources. Jerseys are known for their high butterfat content, making their milk excellent for cheese and butter.

Dexter cows are another option, known for hardiness and efficient feed conversion. They can be a great choice if you need a small, dual-purpose breed. These smaller breeds can be easier to manage, especially for small-scale or family-operated farms.

miniature jersey cow in stall

Selecting the Right Dairy Breed for Your Farm

Finding the best breed for your homestead cow or dairy herd means considering your farm’s environment, the breed’s adaptability, and the cows’ demeanor. Here’s what you need to consider to make the best choice.

Farming Environment

Your farm’s location plays a role in the success of certain dairy cow breeds. Pretty much all of the breeds I’ve listed here will do fine anywhere within the United States though, as long as they have adequate shelter and water.

The resources available at your particular farm is a factor as well. For smaller homesteads, breeds like Jerseys or Dexters might be more practical due to their compact size and efficiency as grazers. While larger farms might benefit from breeds that require more space and food, but produce more milk (like Holsteins)

Breed Adaptability and Maintenance

Different breeds have varying needs when it comes to food, shelter, and general care. Breeds like the Jersey are efficient grazers and can adapt to different types of feed. They are hardy and require less maintenance compared to other breeds.

Holsteins, known for their high milk yield, may need more intensive care and specialized feeding to maintain production levels.

For a family milk cow, it may be wise to consider a dual-purpose breed like Dexter if there is the potential for butchering a steer down the line. Although, I have heard that Jerseys make excellent meat as well.

When choosing a breed, think about the time and money you can devote to their care.

Demeanor and Personality

The temperament of dairy cow breeds definitely matters, especially if you will be interacting with them daily. Breeds like the Jersey are quite gentle, making them ideal for families. However, from experience I can say that they have some sass too.

Holsteins are generally calm but can be more difficult to manage due to their larger size. And pretty much the same can be said for the Guernsey breed.

For a small farm or a homestead, cows with a friendly and docile temperament can make your experience more enjoyable. Choosing a breed with a suitable demeanor ensures a positive experience for you and your family.

Hopefully this summary of the best dairy cow breeds was helpful in your research! Leave me a comment below telling me where you are in your homesteading/dairy cow journey!

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