There’s a 15 mile bike route I like to follow on days I want to keep it simple. It explores the roads just west of the Uff-da-bahn between Westby and Viroqua and returns along the bike path. I head out State Street that becomes Old Line Road, pumping up and cruising down a series of hills, passing fields of corn, pasture, and grazing cows.
Then, I pass a large operation with several barns on the hillside – one labeled “Stud.” There is a security gate to the driveway, and a sign on the silo reads “Accelerated Genetics.” Relieved to avoid that last steep hill before Branches Winery, I take a left on Neprud Road. After turning, I pass a farmhouse and some red cows with white faces look up to study me.
After pedaling over some flat land, I finally get a nice long downhill and stand up to fully feel the breeze around my body and maybe create a little resistance to keep my speed under control. I have to slow down at the stop sign at the bottom of the hill. At the Northeast corner of this intersection is a muddy paddock with black and white cows picking at a hay bale feeder.
I then take a right on Natwick road heading west and soon pass a Westby Creamery dairy farm on my right with spotted cows grazing on the hillside. The road curves south again and I look to my right to see a large pasture with a stream weaving through and dark black cows scattered throughout. I soon pass another sign for a Westby Creamery dairy farm; this one is organic.
In 2014, Wisconsin had 1,270,000 milk cows, surpassed only by California with 1,781,000. New York came in a distant third with 615,000 (USDA). Typically, if you ask someone to draw a cow, they will draw a boxy horse-like creature with large black spots on a white background. Holsteins are indeed the most popular dairy cow in the US, and not surprisingly, they produce the most milk of all cow breeds. The origins of the Holstein are unknown, but historical records mention black and white cattle existing in the northern Netherlands before the 17th century (Pukite). The first US imports, by Dutch settlers in New York, were simply called “Dutch” cattle (Pukite). Eventually, people referred to them as Holstein-Friesian and finally, just Holstein.
Yet, these Driftless pastures seem to have several cow breeds – black, brown, red, spotted and plain. Why would a dairy man choose any other cow but the most productive Holstein? To learn more on this subject, I turned to a local expert, Dr. Guy Jodarski, supervising veterinarian for CROPP Cooperative. Dr. Guy reviewed the top most popular dairy breeds with me based on the family farms that make up CROPP. First off, he estimates that Holsteins do make up about 50% of the cows. That said, farmers tend to cross-breed to select for advantageous traits in multiple breeds.
The next most popular breed would be the Jersey, making up about 25% of the co-op’s cows. The Jersey is a little brown cow with big eyes. Of all the breeds, the Jersey yields the richest milk in percentage of butterfat and protein, for which farmers receive a premium. Yet, the amount of milk the Jersey produces is equivalent in terms of body weight to what the Holstein produces (Pituke). Conflicting theories claim that it originated from the cattle of nearby Brittany and Normandy and from cattle as far away as the Zebu on the Indian subcontinent. Yet, it’s certain that the purebred Jersey has resided on the Isle of Jersey for at least 1,000 years (Pituke.) Compared to Holsteins, Jerseys tend to be more curious and even mischievous. Some farmers, who are comfortable milking Holsteins, may prefer to avoid the trouble-making Jerseys. However, it is common to cross Holsteins and Jerseys, resulting in a cow nicknamed the HoJo.
The Brown Swiss is also popular for cross-breeding. The Brown Swiss resembles the Jersey but is larger, like the Holstein, and has really long ears. This Brown Swiss was originally a triple-purpose breed, used for beef, dairy and draft in Europe. It is second only to the Holstein in total milk yield, and the Brown Swiss far exceeds the Holstein in total milk-solid content (Pukite). Dr. Guy noted that they are generally a slow cow—slow to get up, slow to calve, slow to do everything. Perhaps, they are not the best choice for a fast-paced or impatient farmer.
Other breeds of note included the Guernsey, the Ayrshire, and the Milking Shorthorn. The Guernsey is usually brown or tannish yellow, often with white spots of various sizes. A group of Monks started the Guernsey breed on the Isle of Guernsey, in the UK, over a thousand years ago (Pukite). Dr. Guy mentioned that this breed was the top breed in Wisconsin at the turn of the century, 18th to 19th that is, but has since lost its popularity. They produce milk high in fat and protein but are not as productive as other breeds. A few dairies still market Guernsey milk as “old-fashioned” (Pukite).
The Ayrshire is a red and white cow that somewhat resembles the Holstein. If you’re wondering how to pronounce this one, it depends. Dr. Guy laughed, saying that farmers in the northeast tend to say “err-sherr”. Most consider this a practical breed because of its consistent production of fairly rich milk under almost any condition (Pukite).
The Milking Shorthorn comes in red and white, all red, all white or roan. The Milking Shorthorn adapts to both hot and cold climates and grazes well (Pukite). It originated in northeast England from the dual-purpose Shorthorn. Finally, the Scandinavian (Norwegian, Swedish, Danish and Finnish) Reds are popular for cross-breeding with the Holstein for the health-related traits. The Norwegian Red, for example, is known for its good mothering ability (Pituke).
Dr. Guy Jodarski, staff veterinarian for CROPP Cooperative / Organic Valley
Pukite, John. A Field Guide to Cows: How to Identify and Appreciate America’s 52 Breeds. New York: Penguin, 1998