The needs of commercial dairy producers, milk utilization and consumer preferences play major roles in the color of our national herd.

by Calvin Covington
The author is a retired breed association executive secretary and dairy cooperative CEO.

1935 census of dairy breed numbersOur industry has changed a great deal during the past century. One of those changes has been the color and attributes of the cows we milk. Specifically, the dairy breed make-up of the national dairy herd, today, compared to the first half of the 20th century is much different. The 1935 U.S. Census of Agriculture estimated there were 23 million dairy cows. Of those 23 million dairy cows, 42 percent were Jersey, followed by Holstein with 40 percent, Guernsey at 16 percent, Ayrshire was 2 percent, and Brown Swiss, 1 percent (see Figure 1).

Other reliable date exists
Since the 1935 Census of Agriculture survey there is no known record of USDA estimating the breed composition of the nation's dairy herd. Fortunately, there is another reliable source that provides a good estimate - Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) records. In 1985, National DHI began publishing the number of cows enrolled on DHI test by breed. The data not only includes the five breeds referenced in 1935, but also Milking Shorthorn, Red and White, and Mixed. A herd is designated "Mixed" if the herd does not have 75 percent or more of one single breed. Even though only half of the nation's dairy cows are enrolled in DHI, the DHI data provides us with the best information available to examine trends in which breed of cow dairy farmers are milking.

The 1985 data shows that nearly 93 percent of the cows enrolled in DHI were Holstein. Jersey stood at 3 percent, Guernsey about 1-1/4 percent, Mixed almost 2 percent, and the other four breeds were slightly over 1 percent (see Figure 2).

1985 and 2012 breed percentages based on enrollment in DHI

During the 50-year period from 1935 to 1985, why would Holstein gain nearly 50 percent market share? Let me share my list. More focus by the Holstein breed, compared to the other breeds, was placed on improving milk production and breeding a cow for the commercial dairy farmer. At the same time, the butterfat standards for fluid milk were lowered. Consumer preferences were also changing . . . they moved from purchasing "creamline milk" in glass bottles to homogenized and lower fat milk in paper cartons. That's not all.

The milk pricing system during that era gave an economic advantage to Holstein milk over the milk produced by the other breeds. In milk deficit parts of the country, fluid milk processing plants encouraged and facilitated the expansion of Holsteins. These fluid plants needed more milk volume to meet growing consumer demand. Further changes also took place in dairy product demand as butter was no longer the leading dairy product. All of these reasons gave the Holstein breed advantages over the other breeds.

Mixed and Jersey category grew
Let's fast forward nearly three decades and look at today. Using 2012 DHI data, Holstein continues to be by far the major dairy breed. However, the numbers have changed somewhat. Holstein declined from a peak of almost 93 percent to about 86 percent of all cows enrolled in DHI in 2012 (see Figure 2).

The biggest change from 1985 to 2012 is the Mixed category. Again, Mixed can be herds with more than one breed or include crossbreds. Mixed were less than 2 percent of the cows in 1985 but rose four-fold to almost 8.5 percent in 2012. Jersey showed the next biggest growth going from 3.1 percent in 1985 to over 5.5 percent in 2012. Meanwhile, Guernsey experienced the largest decline from about 1.3 percent of the cows in 1985 to only about 0.1 percent last year.

In the 27 year period from 1985 to 2012, why the decline in Holstein and rise in Mixed and Jersey? My list is similar to the reasons given for the growth in Holsteins from 1935 to 1985. There has been a shift in dairy products usage, especially the tremendous growth of the cheese industry. Just as in the past some fluid milk processors encouraged farmers to milk Holsteins for their milk volume; today, some cheese plants encourage farmers to milk Jerseys or crossbreds for higher cheese yields.

Since the early 80s, milk pricing moved from pricing the skim portion of milk only on volume to pricing the components contained in the skim. This change significantly enhanced the price of Jersey milk when compared to Holstein. No doubt the greater interest in grazing helps the demand for Jersey and Mixed breeds. And it is no longer just the Holstein breed promoting and breeding a cow for the commercial dairy farmer. Let's keep in mind our last trend.

Even though Mixed and Jersey grew as a percent of cows enrolled in DHI, Holstein still garners over 85 percent of the nation's dairy herd, with all other breeds accounting for just 15 percent.

What might the future hold?
Based on what took place over the past three decades, one would expect the percentage of the national dairy herd that are Mixed and Jersey to continue to grow. It is highly possible, if current trends continue, that in the next 10 to 20 years the Mixed number could exceed 20 percent with Jersey approaching 10 percent, and Holstein declining to around 70 percent. The other breeds would be less than 1 percent of all dairy cows. How does this look in another country?

In New Zealand about 41 percent of their dairy herd are Holstein-Friesians/Jersey crosses followed by 38 percent Holstein-Friesians, 12 percent Jersey, 8 percent other breeds, and about 0.5 percent Ayrshire.

Having a cow that met the needs of the commercial dairy farmer, milk utilization, milk pricing, and consumer preferences were the primary reasons for the shift to Holstein from 1935 to 1985. Since that time, the same reasons led to a shift towards Mixed and Jersey. It will be those same and similar reasons that will determine the breed of dairy cow milked by dairy farmers in the future.

This article appears on page 743 of the November 2013 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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