Cattle, or cows, have been domesticated for more than 10,000 years. Hundreds of breeds of cattle exist, but there are seven main breeds of dairy cow: Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Guernsey, Holstein, Jersey and Milking Shorthorn. A seventh breed, the Red and White Holstein, is a variation of the Holstein breed.

What They Eat

Cows eat grasses in pastures or are fed a commercial mix of plants and nutrients. Their four-part fermenting stomach, allows them to eat plants that most other animals could never digest. One cow may eat as much as 100 pounds of roughage in a day. Cows also drink a lot of water – about 30-50 gallons per day!

Where They Live

Cattle live wherever people live but are best suited to places with grass for grazing. Different breeds around the world have traits that relate to their surroundings. Brahman cattle in India, for example, have a thin, glossy coat that helps reflect that region’s intense sun and heat. Ayrshires are particularly good at finding food. They come from Scotland, where grazing plants were historically sparse.

What They Do

Cows eat food that is high in cellulose, and therefore difficult to digest. In order to obtain as much nutrition as possible from their food, cows spend as much as four out of every six hours eating and chewing. Along with other ruminants, they chew and partially digest, then re-chew and digest their grassy diet. In cows, this re-chewing behavior is called “chewing cud.”

How They’re Doing

While cows are numerous across the planet, some breeds are very rare. Dutch Belted cattle, for instance, are extremely rare, with only a few hundred in the United States. The Minnesota Zoo’s dairy herd includes Dutch Belted cattle to ensure that such rare breeds survive.

Common Names

Bull: an adult male
Calf: a young cow, either male or female
Cow: a female that has had at least one baby
Heifer: a young female that has not had a baby
Polled: cattle born without horns
Sire: a father bovine
Steer: a castrated male
Yearling: a cow between 1 and 2 years old
Herd: a group of cattle

Animal Facts

Height : 49-52 inches
Weight: Cows 900-2,000 pounds; Bulls up to 3,000 pounds
Lifespan: up to 20 years, most are in dairy herds for 7 – 8 years
Births per year: 1 calf

Taxonomic Category

Mammal, hoofed

Where at the Zoo

Wells Fargo Family Farm

Meet the Animals

The Wells Fargo Family Farm includes a variety of dairy cow breeds, from rare to common. These may change somewhat from year to year, but generally include Brown Swiss, Dutch Belted, Holstein and Milking Shorthorn.

  • Black and White Holstein: The most common dairy breed across the Unites States, Holsteins are the top milk-producing breed, producing over 100 pounds of milk a day. Black and White Holsteins can be recognized by their typical black and white “cow” pattern at the Wells Fargo Family Farm.
  • Red and White Holstein: Red and White Holsteins are closely related to Black and White Holsteins. At the Wells Fargo Family Farm, this breed is recognized by a red and white “cow” pattern.
  • Dutch Belted: Dutch Belted cows are an extremely rare breed, with only 200-600 registered individuals in the United States. They can be identified by the belt-like appearance of a thick band of white along the middle of the body, with black (or sometimes brown) on both ends.
  • Brown Swiss: Brown Swiss are originally from the Swiss Alps, but are well adapted to a wide range of climates. Their milk has a high protein to fat ratio, so is ideal for making cheese. At the Wells Fargo Family Farm, this breed can be identified by their big ears, docile nature, large size and silver to brown coloration.
Care at the Wells Fargo Family Farm

The Zoo’s cattle live in the Dairy Barn. The traditional red barn contains cow stalls, a hayloft, and the Milking Parlor. The barn is designed to keep the cows warm during Minnesota’s cold winters. In summer, fans cool down the cows and keep them comfortable.

When Farm staff or volunteers are present, you might be able to pet the cows as they eat from mangers. Between feedings the cows go outside to eat and exercise.

Since the Wells Fargo Family Farm is a working farm, cattle are raised as they are on many Minnesota dairy farms. Baby cows, or calves, are born year-round. Their first caregivers are their mothers, who clean them by licking them over with sand-papery tongues. After that clean-up, calves are shifted to a nearby hut until their immune system gets stronger. Staff at the Farm feed the calves bottles filled with colostrum. This rich milk is produced by the cow for the first 2-3 days. Calves later drink a milk-like supplement and are weaned—or taken off the bottle in 4-6 weeks.

Staff at the Wells Fargo Family Farm oversee the herd’s feeding and nutrition. They keep the bedding in stalls fresh, groom each herd member, and make sure there’s always a good water supply in the Dairy Barn. Farm staff work with Minnesota Zoo veterinarians to address any medical problems. They also carefully watch the health of pregnant females and newborn calves.

  • Milking machines collect milk squirting out from the udder of a female cow. There are about 350 “squirts” in the average gallon.
  • To help their food go down, a typical cow produces 70-80 quarts of saliva a day!
  • Here’s one pie you won’t want to eat: When cows produce manure, or waste, the waste often plops down in a round splat on the ground—known as a “cow pie.” This is valuable fertilizer.
  • Cows have no upper front teeth. Although they have a total of 32 teeth, they have none in the middle of the upper jaw. This means cows have to swing their heads to tear grasses up from the roots.
  • In the United States, Minnesota ranks seventh in the number of dairy cows and eighth in milk production.
  • Of all dairy cows, Holsteins produce the most milk. On average, a single Holstein produces more than 23,000 pounds of milk in a year. That’s more than the weight of six small SUVs!
  • The spot pattern on a Holstein is as unique as a snowflake or a finger print! No two are exactly the same.

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