The Holstein, also known as the Friesian, is almost always black and white and the black and white cow is virtually an international symbol of the dairy industry. They are the backbone of many a dairy farm. Its ancestors belonged to migrant Batavians and Friesians, European tribes who settled in the Rhine Delta around 2,000 years ago. The northern provinces of the Netherlands, specifically North Holland and Friesland, were the breeding grounds of the first Holsteins.
When Dutch farmers went to the Americas around 1621 to 1664, they took their Holsteins with them and settled along the Hudson and Mohawk river valleys. Over a century later, in 1795, John Lincklaen imported six cows and two bulls from the Holland Land Company. From 1910 to 1913, a Holstein called Pauline Wayne was the official presidential pet for President William Howard Taft, the 27th president of the USA.
In 1852, Winthrop Chenery bought a black and white cow from a Dutch sailing master. The ship’s crew had been supplied with milk by this cow as they travelled to the New World. The cow made such a favourable impression that there were more importations in 1857, 1859 and 1861. However cows from the first two consignments were destroyed by the Massachusetts government following an outbreak of a contagious disease. An outbreak of disease in Europe saw importations halted but only after nearly 9,000 Holsteins had arrived.
There were several associations formed with the aim of recording pedigrees and maintaining herd books. The Holstein-Friesian Association in America was founded in 1885, changing its name to the Holstein Association USA Inc. in 1994.
Following a practice of strict culling and selective breeding, the Holstein became highly efficient and productive with an impressive conversion rate of grass to milk.
The Holstein is large and almost always black and white. An occasional red and white animal appears. A recessive gene is responsible for red colour replacing black. Only if a red bull and red cow are bred will the progeny be red. Otherwise the chances are 1 in 4 or 1 in 2 depending on whether one or both parents are carriers for the red gene.
When fully grown the cow weighs around 680kg and measures 58 inches at the shoulder. As a contrast, a Guernsey cow weighs 450 to 500kgs. Holstein heifers can be bred at around 15 months of age and should certainly calve between 24 and 27 months.
The Holstein has an enviable reputation as a dairy breed. She has excellent production records, solid genetic merit and adapts well to climatic conditions. They adapt well to shedded or grazing management systems. The cows are fertile and have good maternal instincts. They have a high tolerance to heat, are easy to handle and are not easily stressed. The calves are early maturing.
They produce a fine-fibred meat on large frames. When crossed with a beef bull, the carcass of the progeny is of good quality and heavy.
The figures for income over feed costs exceed that of other breeds. The Holstein Association’s herdbook accounts for almost 20% of the dairy cattle of the United States. There are over 19 million registrations with many pedigrees going back to animals imported originally from the Netherlands.