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Dairy Production Systems

Black and white Holstein

Source: USDA - ARC

In the U.S., milk comes from breeds of cattle genetically selected for milk production. At one time in the U.S., cattle were selected simultaneously for beef and milk production. This is still the case in many parts of the world. The common dairy breeds in the U.S. today have been selected almost exclusively for milk production for many generations.

Black and white Holstein cows make up over 90% of the U.S. dairy herd. Some Holsteins are red and white, but, aside from color, indistinguishable from black and white Holsteins. The U.S. Holstein is well known around the world for her ability to produce large volumes of milk, butterfat and protein. She is a very profitable cow for farmers when large amounts of feed with high levels of grain are available. The U.S. Holstein is relatively new to North America, with the first imports of registered Holsteins arriving in the 1880s. However, the breed has dominated production in the U.S. since the end of World War II, and advances in artificial insemination have increased her popularity in breeding programs around the world largely owing to her advantage in production over all other breeds.

Jersey Cow

Source: USDA - ARC

The Jersey is the second most popular cow in the U.S. and makes up about 7% of the U.S. dairy herd. She is known for her smaller size (1000 lbs. for a mature Jersey cow versus 1500 lbs. for a mature Holstein cow), higher percentages of fat and protein in her milk, early maturity, and efficiency of milk production. Payment by milk processors to dairy producers based on the content of butterfat and protein in milk has increased the popularity of the Jersey, especially in markets where milk is manufactured into cheese. Other dairy breeds make up only around 2% of the dairy cattle population. These include:

More information about the breeds of dairy cattle. Exit EPA

A few other dairy breeds have become popular more recently. Dutch Belted, Danish Jersey, Normandy, Montbeliarde, Danish Red, British Friesian, and Norwegian Red have gained notoriety for their purported superiority under grazing management (pasture production systems). Many of these breeds have been developed in countries where grazing is widely practiced. Nevertheless, many U.S. dairy producers have good success grazing Holsteins and other traditional U.S. breeds of dairy cattle.

Until recently, very little crossbreeding was practiced in the U.S. Crossbreeding, which refers to mating cows to bulls of a different breed, is gaining in popularity for several reasons. Much of the genetic improvement in Holsteins has been for milk production alone, while other breeds have been selected for other traits like fertility, moderate size, disease resistance, and strength. Thus, crossbreeding allows the breeds to compliment each other's strengths. There is also some level of hybrid vigor expected in the progeny; that is, first generation crosses may be better than the average of the parents.

Grazing versus Intensive Dairy Production Systems

Cows on Pasture

In the United States, most milk is produced by cows raised in intensive production systems. These include tie stall barns, free stall barns, and open lots. The more intensively managed systems feed cows rations that are relatively high in concentrates and stored forages. Other cows are raised in pasture-based systems, which are the primary production system in several dairy producing countries in the world, such as New Zealand. Pasture-based systems often strive to optimize rather than maximize milk production while paying careful attention to controlling input costs. Some producers use a combination of the two systems, which is appealing in that it reduces costs, but still allows the feeding of concentrate to improve milk production levels.

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