The History Behind Dairy Cows: Where Did They Come From?

Leave a comment / / Updated on: 6th October 2023

dairy cow
Dairy cows enjoying the sun | 4FR via Getty Images

The domestication of bovids marked a significant turn in the development of agriculture and nutrition, not to mention how much it impacted the global economy. 

It also played a role in shaping the relationship between countries through dairy exports and imports. 

Besides this, cattle breeding and the dairy industry provided jobs for millions of people!

In short, we cannot stress enough how much dairy cows have changed our lives! 

But where exactly did they come from, and when were they first domesticated? 

Keep reading to find out! You’ll also learn about a dairy cow’s lactation cycle, the most renowned cattle breeds, and how much milk industry-leading countries produce!

Gage Beasley's In-Demand Plush Toys
Gage Beasley’s In-Demand Plush Toys

Where Are Most Dairy Cows From?

Dairy cows were first domesticated in Turkey, Syria, and Pakistan 10,500 years ago. 

Over the centuries, they became widespread thanks to migration and human exportation.

Today, India has the biggest number of milk cows – almost 60,000,000 cows! 

However, the country is not a leader in terms of cow’s milk production. Keep reading to discover the reason!

The next in line in terms of milk cow numbers is the European Union, with 20 million. 

Although India has three times as many cows, all 27 states of the European Union produce almost twice as much cow milk as India!

Check out the other countries that made the top of this list:

  • Brazil, with 16.1 million cows
  • The United States, with 9.4 million cows
  • Mexico, with over 6.6 million cows
  • Russia and China, with 6.4 million cows
  • New Zealand, with almost 5 million cows
  • The United Kingdom, with almost 2 million cows
  • Argentina, with 1.5 million cows
  • Belarus, with 1.4 million cows
dairy cow
Calves confined in a dairy farm, grazing on green grass in countryside of Minas Gerais, Brazil. | Leila Melhado via Getty Images

As mentioned, although India has the most dairy cows, the European Union comes first in terms of milk production, delivering a volume of 143.9 million metric tons of milk! 

It’s followed by the United States, which produces 102.97 million metric tons of milk. India occupies third place, with a volume of 97 million metric tons.

In Europe, the most important cow milk-producing countries are Germany, France, and Poland, as they’ve made it to the top of 15 milk-producing countries in the world. 

This industry highly influences the economy of the member states. Besides being used internally, the European Union is a major exporter of dairy products to non-EU countries.

Gage Beasley's Dairy Cow Plush Toy
Gage Beasley’s Dairy Cow Plush Toy

In the United States, the dairy industry adds over $752 billion to the country’s annual GDP. 

California is at the top in terms of dairy production. It’s followed by Wisconsin and Idaho.

Dairy production is just as important in India, as it contributes 5% to the economy and provides jobs for 80 million farmers.

Some sources mention that the country does not produce as much milk as the European countries and the United States because the Indian cattle breeds aren’t as productive, and the average milk yield is significantly lower. 

This can be linked to inadequate care and nutrition, as well as a lack of correct breeding practices.

What Is the Origin of the Dairy Breed?

dairy cow
The legendary Bos taurus species | Byronsdad via Getty Images

Most dairy cows are of the Bos taurus species. 

It is thought they were first domesticated roughly 10,500 years ago from wild aurochs, an extinct cattle group measuring 1.55–1.8 meters (5–5.9 feet) tall, thus being one of the largest herbivores of their time.

Domestication occurred in a territory we now call Pakistan and in the Near East. 

The Pakistani area gave rise to the indicine line of cattle, whereas the Near East area gave rise to the taurine line of cattle. 

It is believed that most cattle from the taurine line appeared near the Turkish Çayönü Tepesi villages and in Syria’s Dja’de el-Mughara settlement.

Imagine that 80 wild aurochs led to the development of an incredible number of 1.5 billion cattle over the last ten thousand years! 

dairy cow
An auroch lies in the winter forest | Vikki via Getty Images

Considering the high exportation levels, the different exportation patterns, and the various hybridization patterns, it is now quite difficult to outline a precise origin for a specific cattle group.

It is believed, however, that the American descendants of modern dairy cows brought to the Western Hemisphere at the end of the 15th century by European settlers were of taurine lineage, meaning they originated from Turkey. 

Further studies, however, confirmed that they exhibit characteristics of both lineages. This is valid for the European breeds as well.

Hybridization makes outlining the origins of a cattle group challenging; that’s true. 

 But let’s look at it from a positive side – it has also facilitated the adaptation process of newly developed cattle breeds in terms of environment and climate.

Are Dairy Cows Native to America?

dairy cow
Dairy cow on a bright sunny afternoon | JohnFScott via Getty Images

Dairy cows aren’t native to North America. They arrived on the continent only at the end of the 15th century.

The precise origin of dairy cows in America remains, however, poorly known, as few records actually confirm this.

The most renowned and plausible theory is that cattle were brought in 1493 by the Spanish people after Columbus had returned to the Old World with glowing reports of the New World.

Another assumption is that cattle were brought to America by the French, who settled along the St. Lawrence in 1541. 

It was later discovered that cattle had likely been present close to that region 40 years before and had been brought by the Portuguese. 

dairy cow
Dairy cattle in a paddock in Canterbury, New Zealand | travellinglight via Getty Images

Other historians argue that these cattle had actually escaped from either a Spanish or a Portuguese ship.

One theory puts the Dutch in charge of introducing dairy cows to America. 

Supposedly, this occurred in 1625 in the territory we now call Albany. 

Other historians discuss that the Swedes and the English played a significant role in the introduction and dispersal of dairy cows in America.

The Holstein breed is by far the most popular and profitable dairy breed in the United States. Others are the Jersey, the Brown Swiss, and the Guernsey breeds.

Does Dairy Come from Pregnant Cows?

dairy cow
What a pregnant cow looks like | percds via Getty Images

Like all mammals, cows have mammary glands that develop before birth and continue growing while they are pregnant. Therefore, cows produce milk only if they get pregnant.

However, they start delivering milk only once they calve, meaning when they give birth. The lactation cycle starts shortly before calving.

Prior to getting pregnant, cows undergo a developmental process that eventually makes calving possible. 

Their ovaries start producing more estrogen. Additionally, prolactin and progesterone are responsible for alveoli development (milk-producing cells).

Growth hormones and adrenal corticosteroids are also produced in higher quantities, as they play a significant role in the proliferation of their udder tubular system. 

If cows don’t get pregnant, their mammary gland isn’t fully developed, so they cannot produce milk.

The largest amount of milk is produced approximately 40–60 days after calving. The lactation cycle lasts around ten months or 305 days. 

The cow stops producing milk for the remaining 60 days.

dairy cow
Farmer worker milking a cow | ake1150sb via Getty Images

The first milk produced after calving is called colostrum and is highly important for the calf as it contains the required levels of protein, fat, antibodies, and minerals. 

It is recommended to collect colostrum within 1–4 hours after calving as the concentration of antibodies declines quickly.

Humans usually start collecting milk for their own use when the quantity increases and the fat and protein levels drop.

Needless to say, it is essential to regularly milk the cows if a higher amount of milk is expected. 

If the cow is kept for more than 16 hours without milking, it won’t feel as stimulated to produce milk. Why so?

Milking stimulates the nipple, which, in turn, causes alveoli contraction and dopamine blockage in the brain. 

When this happens, the organism releases prolactin, and the production of milk increases. So if there’s no stimulus, there’s no milk!

Where Did the Jersey Cow Originate From?

dairy cow
The Jersey cow breed | debibishop via Getty Images

The Jersey cow breed comes from Jersey, also called the Bailiwick of Jersey. 

It’s an island country in the British Channel Islands and is located near the northwestern coast of France.

It is thought that the ancestors of Jersey cows were brought to the islands from Normandy. 

The first Jersey cows appeared at the beginning of the 18th century, and until 1789, they were given as dowry for marriages between people from Jersey and Guernsey.

From 1789 until 2008, importing foreign cattle was prohibited by law, and the Jersey cow breed was isolated to ensure its purity.

The cows were, however, exported regularly, which is why the breed is now widespread. They were brought to England in 1771 and the United States in the 1850s.

Jersey cows on the field | Alan_Lagadu via Getty Images

Today, Jersey cows are bred in over 100 countries worldwide, although the most high-quality populations are found in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Denmark, Canada, the United States, South Africa, New Zealand, and Australia.

Jersey cows are small compared to other breeds. They weigh only 350–400 kilograms (772–882 pounds) and stand 1.15–1.20 meters (3.8–3.9 feet) at the withers. 

Naturally, bulls are larger. They can be of various shades, from light tan to almost black.

This breed had a significant impact on the worldwide quality and production rates of dairy due to the following reasons:

  • Jersey cows don’t require much maintenance, are smaller, and do not use as many natural resources.
  • Jersey cows have a shorter calving interval and an earlier maturity.
  • Jersey cows register a lower rate of dystocia (obstructed labor when the calf is physically blocked during calving) and, therefore, can be crossbred.
  • Jersey cows have high fertility.
  • The milk produced by Jersey cows has greater nutritional value.

Characteristics of Dairy Cattle

Cow udder | Madzia71 via Getty Images

Dairy cattle are quadrupedal ungulate mammals. Their appearance, size, and weight depend on their breed. Jersey and Dexter breeds, for example, are smaller and do not weigh more than 500 kilograms (1,100 pounds), whereas large breeds, like Holstein or Normande, can reach 700 kilograms (1,540 pounds). Bulls are much larger than cows.

As a general rule, healthy dairy cows should have wide udders that don’t hang loosely, downward-pointing teats that are evenly spaced, strong legs and feet, long necks, straight backlines, and not too much flesh. 

The cattle temperament depends on the breed, although most dairy cows are docile, sweet, and gentle.

Cattle are all highly gregarious. Studies have shown that even short-term separation can lead to psychological stress. 

Calves are known to benefit from social interaction and play behavior, as this influences their health, overall welfare, and the development of social skills.

Some sources mention that the Holstein Friesian cattle breed has registered the highest productivity among all breeds as it can produce 10,000-12,000 liters (2,640–3,170 US gallons) of milk yearly. 

Brown swiss cow | Clar a Bastian via Getty Images

Jersey and Brown Swiss cows can sometimes reach the same quantity, whereas Normande cows produce 6,000–7,000 liters (1,585–1,849 US gallons) of milk yearly.

The lactation cycle and milk productivity are significantly affected by how well-fed and rested the cows are. 

Stress and diseases have a negative impact on milk production. 

For example, if dairy cows have unhealthy rumen, they won’t be able to fully digest the nutrients. 

Furthermore, after each meal, cows must have at least five hours of rest, as this increases the blood flow to the mammary gland.

Dairy Cattle Breeds

Check out the table below for details about the world’s most popular dairy cattle breeds:

OriginCoatCow WeightMilk YieldUniqueness
Holstein FriesianThe Netherlands, Germany– Black and white
– Red and white
680–770 kg (1,500–1,700 lb)12,000 l (3,170 US gal)– Highest milk production
– Easy to handle
– Resistant to stress
Brown swissThe United StatesLight grayish brown590–640 kg (1,300–1,410 lb)11,800 l (3,122 US gal)– Prolific breeders
– Long-lived
– Strong and adaptable
AyrshireScotlandRed and white540 kg
(1,200 lb)
9,100 l (2,400 US gal)– Easy to raise
– Excellent milk producers
– Strong personality
GuernseyIsland of Guernsey, the Channel Islands– Red or fawn
– Red and white
– Fawn and white
450–500 kg (1,000–1,100 lb)6,000 l (1,585 US gal)– Highly adaptable
– Efficiently converts feed to milk
– Produces high-butterfat, high-protein milk
JerseyJersey, the Channel IslandsFrom light tan to dark brown350–400 kg (770–880 lb)5,700 l (1,505 US gal)– Long life expectancy
– Small size
– Less calving problems
– Superior fertility
NormandeNormandy, France– Red-pied
– Black-pied
– Blonde
700–800 kg (1,540–1,760 lb)6,000 l (1,585 US gal)– Early sexual maturity
– Good fertility and mammary conformation
– Has large pelvic areas and calves easily
Milking ShorthornEngland– Red
– Red and white
– White
– Roan 
640–680 kg (1,400–1,500 lb)8,555 l (2,260 US gal)– Calves easily
– Long production life
– Highly versatile
Norwegian RedNorway– Red and white
– Black and white
500–600 kg (1,100–1,320 lb)6,200 l (1,640 US gal)– Low mortality rates
– Calves easily
– Good fertility
– Long life expectancy
– Disease-resistant

Are There Male Dairy Cows?

A big brown Bull | esvetleishaya via Getty Images

Male cattle do not produce milk. However, they are still found on dairy farms, where they’re kept for breeding purposes. In this case, they’re called herd bulls.

During the breeding season, herd bulls can service up to 50 cows, depending on how fertile they are. 

Nevertheless, dairy farms keep herd bulls only for 1–2 years, as they usually become more unpredictable beyond this.

Only a few bulls are selected for breeding purposes. This process is called sire selection and implies establishing short- and long-term goals for a specific breeding program. 

An effective sire selection can lead to 90% genetic herd improvement.


It’s been 10,000 years since people domesticated cows and started breeding them for dairy products and milk.

It is believed that dairy cattle originate from wild aurochs and are now divided into two lines: the indicine line, which comes from Pakistan, and the taurine line, which comes from Turkey and Syria and is now the origin of most American and European cattle breeds.

Europeans started domesticating cattle approximately 8,000 years ago, and evidence from Romania and Hungary shows that 7,900–7,450 years ago, they were already producing dairy products.

Although Americans were introduced to domestic cattle roughly 500 years ago, they are now the world’s second cow milk-producing country!

Indisputably, dairy farming is a significant component of our world’s agriculture and economy. 

Therefore, exploring and appreciating the rich history of domesticating cattle is of the essence! 

After all, we’re talking about thousands of years of cattle breeding and hybridization, as well as dairy production!


Who was the first to milk a cow?

Although it is known that cows have been domesticated and used for milk production for thousands of years, it remains unknown who was the first to actually milk a cow.

What is the oldest dairy breed?

Most sources mention that the Brown Swiss breed is among the world’s oldest dairy breeds.

Are dairy cows always pregnant?

A cow is ready to breed again approximately 45–60 days after calving. Afterward, they undergo a gestation period of 9 months until calving.

What is the rarest dairy cow?

The Irish Moiled and the Vaynol are among the world’s rarest cattle breeds.


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