Ayrshire cattle are named after the place where they originated.
The breed of dairy cattle began prior to 1800 in the County of Ayr in Scotland and were first referred to as the Dunlop, then the Cunningham, then the Ayrshire.
It is unknown how the breed came about, but it is thought that several breeds were crossed with native cattle, with the stock being improved beginning around 1750.
The early breeders crossed and selected for traits that were important for them in their geographic area, which was rocky with poor forages. They wanted a cow that was an efficient grazer, noted for her vigor and milk production efficiency and for milk components that contributed to butter and cheese making.
Ayrshires first came to the U.S. around 1822 when a Connecticut farmer, Henry W. Hills, imported them. The environment and weather in New England was similar to Scotland, and New England farmers needed a dairy cow that would graze rough, rocky farms and handle the cold winters. Yet today, the Ayrshire is popular in New England, although the breed has spread across the country.
Donna Mertz, DVM, raises Ayrshire calves at her home near Blair, Nebraska.
The Iowa native loves the breed for several reasons.
“They’re very healthy animals,” she said, “and they have longevity. They live quite a long time, compared to other breeds.”
Part of their longevity is the soundness of their feet and legs, she said.
“They stand up over time as they age,” she explained.
She’s had a cow that lived to be 14 years old.
Mertz also appreciates the milk components. The butterfat component averages 4.0 percent, while the protein averages about 3.5 percent.
“The fat globules and composition of their milk make it excellent for cheese-making,” she said, noting that several dairies who milk Ayrshires make cheese exclusively from their milk and are well-known for the cheese.
Their milk is high fat and seems to be more easily digestible for those who can’t tolerate milk.
Ayrshires are not noted for having milk production as high as Holsteins though, Mertz said.
“We’re not trying to be Holsteins in production,” she said. “We’re focusing on what we’re good at, and trying to improve that.”
Ayrshires might average 20,000 pounds of milk a year, but there are Ayrshires who have produced large amounts of milk. A two-time reserve grand champion at the national show produced 32,000 pounds annually, and another cow in Illinois that produced over 250,000 pounds in her lifetime and is still going.
Mertz is a “unique” Ayrshire breeder, because she raises the heifers while the milk cows are housed by friends near Dyersville, Iowa. She uses embryo transfer to get the genetics she wants and has exported calves across North America. She runs between 20 and 25 heifers a year, and “I don’t receive a milk check.” When she and her husband moved to Blair 15 years ago, she said it wasn’t feasible to milk.
The animals were bred to be good at rustling and forage, and that trait shows up in their feed efficiency and conversion.
“They can eat and convert their feed more efficiently, where it takes less feed to make a pound of milk versus other breeds,” she said.
Because the breed isn’t as popular, fewer university studies have been done to verify those facts. “We know this, and we see it in dairy herds,” Mertz said, “but we don’t have the statistical data. We need the university trials to prove what we’re saying.”
The vigor and stamina of the Ayrshire is something Mertz admires and appreciates.
“I like that they are low input, as a veterinarian,” Mertz said. “I like that I can go out (to the barn) and it can be 20 below zero and they come to the bunk and eat. They go along and get along. I don’t end up having to baby them. I feed them, vaccinate them, breed them, and they do what they’re supposed to do, for the most part.”
The one disadvantage Mertz sees in the breed can also be a strength. They’re strong-willed, she said, “but that also helps with their longevity. They have the will to live, but they can be stubborn at times.”
The breed’s vigor has made them suitable, at least in the present day, as oxen teams. Mertz knows people who have raised Ayrshire steers to make a team out of them. Ayrshires are dehorned as calves, but the horns on a team make their look even more “authentic.”
The U.S. Ayrshire Breeder’s Association, based out of Columbus, Ohio, does a great job of involving youth, Mertz said, at their annual conventions.
“We have quiz bowls, display contests and photo contests,” she said.
Wisconsin also does something unique with the youth, called a “Shayr-a-Heifer.” The state association buys a heifer from a breeder, giving it to the youth who has won a writing contest. The youth co-owns, alongside the Wisconsin Ayrshire Breeders Association, the heifer for two years, shows and breeds it, and brings it back to the spring sale. The goal is to involve those who haven’t owned the specific breed. Sometimes the Shayr-a-Heifer is won by a youth whose family is involved with a different dairy breed and the youth doesn’t want to show against their siblings.
“We’re trying to encourage youth to be more involved,” Mertz added.
Nebraska’s Carl Ashoff organizes the “Cream of the Crop” dairy show in West Point in June. The show is all-breeds dairy, and he has created an opportunity for youth to show all breeds, including Ayrshires.
Mertz’s two daughters, Casey, age eight, and Haley, seven, show Ayrshires and educate their friends when they come to their farm.
“Their friends come out and say, ‘what’s going on?’” Mertz said, adding that the girls are matter-of-fact. “They say, ‘(the cows) make milk and have babies.’”
Ruth Nicolaus can be reached at email@example.com.