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Jeff Semler: Cows are stars during Dairy Month

June 18, 2012
  • Jeff Semler
Jeff Semler

“To conduct a farm of considerable extent, so as to be a profitable concern, requires nearly as much management, (though, to be sure, of a somewhat more straightforward sort) as to be a leading politician in these wayward times.”

While this statement could have been written today, it is actually a quote from The New England Farmer, and Horticultural Journal, Oct. 9, 1829.
With that said, June is Dairy Month and we will once again endeavor to pay tribute to those who provide us with these wholesome and nutritious products.

First to the cows, there are six major dairy breeds and each one can be found here on our hills and dales.

They are the Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Milking Shorthorn.

Ayrshires are medium-sized cattle with the breed developing its red and white characteristics around the year 1800. Natives of Scotland, they are strong, rugged cattle that adapt to all management systems, including group handling on dairy farms with free stalls and milking parlors. Ayrshires excel in udder conformation and are not subject to excessive foot and leg problems. Few other breeds can match the ability of the Ayrshire to rustle and forage for themselves under adverse feeding or climatic conditions.

The Brown Swiss, as we know it in the United States today, originated in Switzerland. Brown Swiss are various shades of brown, predominately mousy brown, but ranging from light brown with gray to very dark brown. The switch of the tail is dark brown to black. The skin is pigmented, the muzzle is black, and the hooves are dark and very hard.  Body weights range from 1,200 to 1,500 pounds for adult females and 2,100 to 2,500 pounds for adult males.

The Guernsey cow originated on the Isle of Guernsey, in the English Channel off the coast of France. She is known for producing high-butterfat, high-protein milk with a high concentration of beta carotene. Being of intermediate size, Guernseys produce their high quality milk while consuming 20 to 30 percent less feed per pound of milk produced than larger dairy breeds.

The Holstein cow originated in what is now the Netherlands and more specifically in the two northern provinces of North Holland and Friesland. Holsteins are most quickly recognized by their distinctive color markings, black and white being the most prominent and outstanding milk production.

The Jersey, often called the little, brown cow, also originated on a small British island in the English Channel, the Island of Jersey. Modern Jerseys may be of a wide range in color. They are more tolerant of heat than larger breeds. With an average weight of 900 pounds, the Jersey produces more pounds of milk per pound of body weight than any other breed.

One of the oldest recognized breeds in the world, Shorthorn cattle originated in Northeastern England in the Valley of the Tees River. Shorthorns are either red, red and white, white or roan, the last color being a very close mixture of red and white, and found in no other breed of cattle. Its hardiness, wide range of adaptation and efficiency of production provided milk, meat and transportation for our pioneers.

There are a few other breeds that are used for dairy purposes in our area.

They are Swedish Reds, Norwegian Reds and Normandes, all imports from Europe. Several older breeds are also making a comeback, including the Dutch Belted and Lineback.

Now, you too, can identify the cows that are grazing in the fields. Remember, the folks who tend these cattle, milking them and feeding them every day, on weekends and holidays.
They do this so you can enjoy cream for your coffee, milk for your cereal, cheese for your sandwich, and let’s face it, ice cream — well, anytime.

Celebrate dairy month anyway you choose, but as for me, I choose ice cream.

Jeff Semler is an Extension educator, specializing in agriculture and natural resources, for the University of Maryland Extension. He is based in Washington County. He can be reached at 301-791-1404, ext. 25, or by email at

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