History of dairy cow breeds: Holstein

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

People showing cows
Holstein cows are the most recognized breed of dairy cattle with distinctive black and white or red and white markings. Photo by ANR Communications, MSU Extension.

Have you ever looked at a dairy cow and wondered about the history of the breed? This new series from Michigan State University Extension will explore the history of the seven major breeds of dairy cattle in the U.S. First in the series is the Holstein.

Holstein cows are perhaps the most recognized breed of dairy cattle and are the most common dairy breed in the U.S. They have distinctive black and white or red and white markings. The red and white coloring is a recessive gene that appears when both the dam (mother) and sire (father) are carriers or exhibit the trait themselves. The Holstein breed is known for high milk production but has less butterfat and protein based on percentage in the milk, compared other breeds.

Holstein cows originated in the Netherlands approximately 2,000 years ago. Two breeds of cattle, black animals from the Batavians (present-day Germany) and white animals from the Friesians (present-day Holland), were crossed to create a new breed of cattle. This crossbreeding led to a high milk-producing animal that was able to do so on limited feed resources. Originally, this breed was known as Holstein-Friesians but is now known more simply as Holsteins. Friesian cattle still exist today but are separate from the Holstein breed. There are Friesian breeds from the United Kingdom, New Zealand and Holland and these animals tend to be smaller bodied than Holstein cattle.

Holstein cattle were initially brought to the U.S. in 1852 by a Massachusetts man named Winthrop Chenery. There was a growing market for milk and a need for cattle, so dairy breeders looked to Holland for animals. Chenery purchased the cow from a Dutch sailing master who had a Holstein on board to provide fresh milk to his crew during the voyage. Impressed with the cow’s milk production, Chenery imported more cows in 1857, 1859 and 1861, and soon many other breeders followed suit to establish lines of Holstein cattle in the U.S.

Near the end of the 1800’s, there were enough cattle and dairy farmers interested in the breed that the Holstein-Friesian Association of America was formed in 1885 to maintain herdbooks and record pedigrees of cattle in the U.S. In 1994, the association changed its name to Holstein Association USA, Inc.

Here are a few more fun facts about the Holstein breed:

  • A mature cow weighs about 1,500 pounds and stands 58 inches tall at her shoulder.
  • There are more than nine million dairy cows in this country and about 90 percent of them are Holsteins.
  • Holstein calves weigh 80 to100 pounds when born.
  • Holstein cows take the top awards in milk production. The average cow produces about 25,000 pounds, or around 2,900 gallons, of milk each lactation or milking, cycle. Each lactation cycle lasts about a year.

Enjoyed learning about Holsteins? Stay tuned for more articles about U.S. dairy breeds!

Other articles in this series

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