British Cattle Breeds
Like the Aberdeen, the Ayrshire is a Scottish breed of cattle although, unlike the Aberdeen, it is a dairy breed. Great Britain has a range of indigenous livestock breeds most of which have made their mark both in their home areas and globally as well.
The country of Ayr in south-west Scotland is made up of the districts of Cunningham, Kyle and Carrick. In its early development, the cattle were known as Dunlops or Cunninghams (Cunninghames). Several breeds contributed to the development of the Ayrshire. Around 1750, Teeswater blood was introduced to the native cattle which were mostly black, small and not good milkers. Teeswater cattle had strong Dutch and Flemish influences and were to influence the Shorthorn breed at a later date. It is likely that cattle from the Channel Islands were also used to improve the composition and production of milk.
Over time, careful selection and management resulted in the hardy, efficient dairy cow that epitomises the modern Ayrshire. Ayrshires have good conversion of feed to milk and are noted for the shape and quality of their udders.
Purebred Ayrshires are a very attractive red and white although the red varies from a very light reddish-tan to a beautiful mahogany or almost black. There is usually a definite break between the red and white hair but the edges may be jagged. The patterns and markings vary from spots to large splashes of colour. Brindle and roan are acceptable but not often seen nowadays.
In days gone by the horns of the Ayrshire were a trademark feature of the breed. The best ones curve out in an elegant arc, turning up and then slightly back. They can be a foot or more in length. Exhibition cattle have the horns highly polished but because of the problems caused by leaving cattle with horns intact, most are dehorned as calves.
The natural habitat of the Ayrshire required the cows to forage for themselves. Winters were cold and there was little supplementary feeding provided. Such harsh weather plus the rugged terrain meant the breed developed a strong and tough constitution and today they produce top quality milk under a range of conditions.
They are of medium size, a mature animal weighing around 1200 pounds. They are strong and rugged and adapt well to varying husbandry methods. The cows have well-formed udders and are highly suited to commercial dairy enterprises. Butterfat levels are moderate, averaging about 4%.
Some Ayrshires may have a tendency to be flighty. They do well under pasture conditions and are happy to forage for themselves. They need very little in the way of grain to keep them in good condition. Longevity is good and they rarely suffer from foot or leg problems.
The calves are vigorous at birth and easy to raise. Bull calves can be profitably kept on and sold as steers. Ayrshires dress out without the yellow tallow present in some breeds.
Around 1822, the first Ayrshires to reach America were exported to the New England region. With somewhat similar conditions to what they had come from, the Ayrshire coped well with the rugged terrain and cold winters. It quickly established itself in the hearts – and pastures - of dairy farmers. In 1929, two cows, Tomboy and Alice, were walked from Brandon, Vermont to the National Dairy Show at St Louis, Missiouri to demonstrate their toughness.
Australia received its first Ayrshires around the middle of the 19th century. The Ayrshire continues to be a solid contributor to the dairy industry worldwide.