In the UK, 95 per cent of dairy cows are the black and white Holstein breed. Other breeds include the British Friesian, Jersey, Guernsey, Ayrshire, Brown Swiss, Montbeliarde and Dairy Shorthorn.
During the 20th century, through a combination of breeding, feeding and management, the dairy cow has developed into our hardest working farm animal. A typical dairy cow can produce 6,000 to over 12,000 litres of milk (10,650 and 21,000 pints) in a single lactation (milk producing period) of 305 days. Some cows are able to produce over 70 pints of milk per day. A cow of a beef breed, in comparison, will only produce enough milk to feed her calf, which is around 1,000 litres (1,760 pints) in a single lactation.
Cattle are grazing animals (i.e. they eat grasses and other low-down vegetation) that ruminate (chew the cud). They spend up to nine hours every day grazing/eating and long periods resting and ruminating. Modern dairy cattle breeds often need large amounts of high-energy food, as well as lots of water, to support their sometimes high levels of milk production.
Cattle are social animals and in some circumstances they can find isolation from other cattle stressful. They form strong social hierarchies (‘pecking orders’) within their herds with some animals being more dominant than others.
Being prey animals, cattle always keep a safe ’flight distance’ from anything they think could be a threat. They have good eyesight, with a wide field of vision, accurate hearing and a strong sense of smell with which to detect possible predators. Because they are prey animals, they have evolved to not show easily recognisable signs of suffering. For example, sick or injured cattle may not vocalise loudly because, in the wild, this could attract the attention of a predator. This lack of expression means that people sometimes don’t notice subtle changes in behaviour that may indicate cattle are in pain or distress.