The cow starts as a calf when she's born, grows into a heifer and then earns her cow stripes -- or spots -- when she's fully grown. A cow's weight depends on her breed and ranges between 800 and 2,400 pounds. There are variety of types of cows, some born and raised as dairy cows and some suited for beef production.
Choosing a Cow
Cows have been around for thousands of years and thanks to crossbreeding are available in a variety of breeds. Certain characteristics vary according to breed, such as their ability to produce a desired quantity or quality of milk, adapt to specific environments or be efficient foragers. When you're choosing a cow, you should know what her purpose is, such as whether she's a milking cow or a beef cow, and what type of resources you have to provide for her, including feed and living environment.
About Dairy Cows
A cow's milk contains a certain amount of protein and butter fat, which varies according to the breed of cow. Nutrition, age and lactation stage affect protein and butter fat content as does the season. Hot humid weather promotes a decrease in fat and protein; as temperatures drop, the protein and fat levels will rise.
Types of Dairy Cows
The Jersey cow isn't from New Jersey, but instead has roots in the United Kingdom, from the Isle of Jersey. She produces around 4 to 6 gallons of milk in a day with a butter fat content of approximately 4.9 to 5.4 percent, providing a rich milk. She weighs around 1,000 pounds and is brown, light brown, black, gray or cream in color.
The Guernsey has a good disposition, like the Jersey, but she's a bigger cow, reaching up to 1,200 pounds. She produces between 4.6 and 5.5 gallons of milk per day with a 4.5 to 4.9 percent butter fat content. She's from the Isle of Guernsey and is either an orangish-red color or brown and white.
The milking shorthorn is a big girl, weighing between 1,300 and 1,600 pounds producing around 6 gallons per day containing 3.8 percent butter fat. Her hide is red, red and white or roan, a striking even mixture of red and white, found only in the shorthorn.
The brown Swiss weighs around 1,400 pounds and produces between 5.3 and 9 gallons of milk in a day. Her output and milk's protein level -- around 3.5 percent -- make her a popular choice for cheese producers. Her milk has a 4 percent butter fat content.
Many commercial producers enjoy the high output of the Holstein Friesian cow, averaging about 8 to 10 gallons of milk in a day. She weighs between 1,400 and 1,500 pounds and produces milk with a butter fat content ranging from 2.5 to 3.6 percent.
The red poll is red or red and white as her name implies and weighs about 1,250 pounds. Her milk contains up to 4.75 percent butter fat and she'll give out between 4 and 5.25 gallons of milk in a day.
The Ayrshire, originally from Scotland, produces between 5 and 6.5 gallons of milk a day with a 3.9 percent butter fat content. Her milk contains small fat molecules that promote a creamy cheese. Her coat is red, brown or mahogany and white.
The Dexter is a small cow, weighing in at a mere 600 to 700 pounds. Her output is light -- only 1.5 to 2.5 gallons in a day -- but it contains small fat globules which make her milk easier to digest. Most Dexter cows are black but they also may be red or brown.
More Than Milk
Cows aren't just for milk; they are also raised for beef. If you're interested in beef breeds there are dozens to choose from, including beefmaster, Aberdeen Angus, Hereford and Charolais. Highland cows are a heritage breed that produce lean, well-marbled meat. The Galloway handles cold weather well, while the Texas longhorn and senepol cope well with a hot environment. Some breeds, such as the Dexter, Normande, Devon, Dutch belted and shorthorn are dual-purpose cows, serving as milk producers and beef cows.
- The Well Fed Homestead: Choosing a Dairy Cow: Breeds
- Mother Earth News: Raising Dairy Cows Part I
- HobbyFarms.com: 7 Heritage Cattle Breeds to Raise with Your Children
- Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences: Milk Components: Understanding the Causes and Importance of Milk Fat and Protein Variation in Your Dairy Herd