History of dairy cow breeds: Brown Swiss

Learn more about Brown Swiss and the other major dairy cattle breeds in the United States.

Stoney Buell (left) and Kristen Burkhardt (right) stand with their champion heifers after the Brown Swiss show during the 2016 Michigan 4-H Youth Dairy Days. Photo: Sara Long.
Stoney Buell (left) and Kristen Burkhardt (right) stand with their champion heifers after the Brown Swiss show during the 2016 Michigan 4-H Youth Dairy Days. Photo: Sara Long.

Have you ever looked at a dairy cow and wondered about the history of the breed? This series from Michigan State University Extension will explore the history of the seven major breeds of dairy cattle in the U.S. Holstein cattle were the first in the series, followed by Jerseys, Ayrshires and Guernseys, and now we turn to the Brown Swiss.

Brown Swiss cattle are thought to be one of the oldest dairy breeds in the world. These cattle originated in the Swiss Alps, a mountain range that covers more than half of Switzerland’s surface area. The terrain varies greatly in the mountains with areas that are rocky, numerous lakes, glaciers, snow-capped mountains and lush valleys. These variances can present challenges to raising animals, but Brown Swiss cattle have adapted very well to the geography. These cattle are also noted for their adaptability to differing climates, being popular in both North and South America, as well as the Middle East. This breed of cattle is able to withstand hot and cold climates while still maintaining a high level of production.

Brown Swiss cattle can be a variety of colors, ranging from very light silver to very dark gray. Their muzzle, hooves and switch (hair at the end of the tail) is usually black. This breed of cattle is known for their strong legs and feet and overall structural correctness, which means they generally have a long, productive lifespan on a dairy farm. Brown Swiss are one of the largest bodied dairy breeds, with a mature cow weighing 1,300-1,400 pounds and a mature bull weighing as much as 2,000 pounds.

The fat to protein ratio in Brown Swiss milk is ideal for cheese, thus making them one of the most popular breeds around the world for cheese making. The average Brown Swiss cow will produce over 22,000 pounds of milk, or about 2,600 gallons of milk, during one lactation. Brown Swiss are often noted for having a docile and calm temperament.

Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa presently boast the largest Brown Swiss populations in the United States, but they can be found all over the country. This breed was initially imported to the U.S. in 1869, with several additional importations occurring in subsequent years for a total of about 150 animals imported from Switzerland, creating the base of herds across the U.S.

For more information about the breed, check out these Brown Swiss organizations around the world: Brown Swiss Association, Canadian Brown Swiss and Braunvieh Association, United Kingdom Brown Swiss Cattle Society, European Brown Swiss Federation and Oklahoma State University Brown Swiss Cattle.

Michigan State University Extension and the Michigan 4-H Youth Development program helps to create a community excited about STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). 4-H STEM programming seeks to increase science literacy, introducing youth to the experiential learning process that helps them to build problem-solving, critical-thinking and decision-making skills. Youth who participate in 4-H STEM content are better equipped with critical life skills necessary for future success. To learn more about the positive impact of Michigan 4-H youth in STEM literacy programs, read our 2015 Impact Report: “Building Science Literacy and Future STEM Professionals.”

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