Over 2,000 years ago, several groups of nomads settled the northern provinces of the Netherlands. The first group to arrive was the Germanic tribe of Friesians, and with them came a breed of cattle known for its unique color pattern. These animals were white with large splotches of various light colors, such as red, dun, or gray.

A few hundred years later, the Friesians were joined by another group of settlers from the Hesse area of western Germany. This was the Batavi tribe, known for raising black cattle.

The two neighboring tribes began to crossbreed their cattle. Over the years, the offspring were carefully selected for beef and milk production. The Rhine Delta area was small, and it was important for cattle to produce well in limited spaces. By the 13th century, the Friesian, as the breed of the Netherlands was originally called, was known for its amazing output of milk and butter, not to mention its large yield of beef.

The first Friesians in the United States were probably introduced in the early 1600s by Dutch settlers. There are no definite records of any importations, however, until 1795, when the Holland Land Company brought six cows and two bulls to our shores. More Friesians followed over the years, but they did not start to achieve popularity in America until after the Civil War.

By that time, the Industrial Revolution was getting underway, and a high-producing dairy cow that could supply milk to the growing cities seemed to offer potentially large profits. Groups of entrepreneurs raced to invest their money in Dutch cattle and develop their dairy qualities. They also decided to raise only black-and-white cattle, thus giving their breed a recognizable appearance. Red-and-white Friesians were still common, but they were culled by many breeders.

In the mid-1800s, an outbreak of foot-and-mouth disease in the Netherlands ended the importations of Dutch cattle. The American population of Friesian cattle was now isolated from outside influences, leaving the entrepreneurs free to transform it into a new breed. As milk yields and frame sizes increased over the next 100 years, the breed became the Holstein-Friesian, distinct from the original dual-purpose Friesian.

As the Holstein-Friesian rose to the forefront in its adopted country, Europeans began to discover its abilities as a milk-producing machine, too. An active export market had arisen by the 1960s, and in 1978 Holstein-Friesian breeders took the final step to making the American breed distinctive. They simply called it the Holstein, a breed nothing like the old-fashioned Friesian.


Because the distinctive black-and-white color was so important to Holstein breeders for maintaining the breed’s identity, there was very little place for the red-and-white cattle that occasionally appeared. However, a few breeders grew tired of culling red calves that had the potential to produce just as much milk as their black siblings, so in 1964 the Red and White became a separate breed.

Today the Holstein is by far the most popular dairy breed in America, and it also enjoys a great deal of popularity worldwide. However, it may someday be challenged by another breed that is quickly becoming a resounding success—the Red and White!


The purebred Holstein is exclusively a dairy breed and is primarily suited to large commercial operations. Crossbred Holsteins are a little more versatile, however. When crossed with other dairy breeds, Holsteins can produce cows suitable for organic dairying. When crossed with beef breeds, they can produce steers for meat. The widespread availability of inexpensive steer calves also makes this breed an easy starting point for draft work.



In general, Holstein cows are calm, agreeable animals. They are generally less intelligent than other dairy breeds, and do not have the same instinct to forage or mother calves. On the other hand, they are harder to stress and much less likely to get into trouble. A few bloodlines may be somewhat hyperactive.

The Holstein bull is notoriously vicious and can be extremely dangerous.

Steers of this breed are agreeable and easy to train, making them excellent draft animals for beginners.


A Holstein kept in a perfectly sheltered environment is fairly vigorous. Remove it to a more challenging situation, however, and it may break down entirely. This is not a breed that can thrive without a great deal of attention. It is prone to lameness, metabolic disorders, and a host of other diseases.


  • Availability.
  • Affordable prices.
  • Good disposition of cows and steers.
  • Early maturity.
  • Easy-to-milk udders.
  • Highest milk yield of all breeds.
  • Fine-textured meat.
  • High salvage values for spent cows.


  • Dangerous temperament of bulls.
  • Poor heat tolerance.
  • Extremely high maintenance requirements.
  • Incredible appetite.
  • Inability to perform on poor-quality pastures.
  • Short lifespan.
  • Poor fertility.
  • Poor mothering instincts.
  • Low quantities of protein and butterfat in its milk.
  • Extremely slow to finish for beef.
  • Poor-quality beef unless fed large amounts of grain.

Helpful Resource

Choosing a Breed of Cattle

Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Is the Holstein right for you? This book will help you assess your five needs and make that decision. Includes a brief profile of the Holstein breed. Free sample pages are available here.

Complete Series

Cattle Breeds

Cattle Breeds