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Holstein Origins – Part One: The Holland Background

Updated: Jun 14, 2022

The dairy barn at Shoenberg Farms is a legacy that remains and, once restored, will be a functional space for the community to experience. The dairy barn, built as a part of the original farm in 1911, was once home to a herd of Holstein cows. As you learned in the previous post, Holstein cows are notorious for their milk production and are found on dairy farms across the country today. Much like Shoenberg Farms, the history of the Holstein breed is rich in value, and their origin might surprise you.

The first part of the Holstein Origins series focuses on the Holland background of these milk-producing maidens.

Holsteins in the Making

Although it is almost impossible to trace a detailed history of the Holstein cattle breed, the chief characteristics were developed in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, especially in the northern provinces of North Holland and West Friesland. Unfortunately, the history of these cattle (and the cattle across the Continental Northwestern European lowland countries) has been lost in antiquity. That doesn’t mean that the origin story about this breed isn’t interesting, though.

The Friesians and the Batavians

The origin story of Holstein cattle begins at or shortly before the Christian era. Two tribes, the Friesians and the Batavians, settled on the fertile lowlands of the Rhine delta. These tribes were hunters and anglers who brought their cattle with them as they settled – one white and one black race. These cattle soon became infamous for the number of cattle and the excellence of their products.

As the qualities of these cattle spread throughout Holland and into Germany, especially in East Friesland, Oldenburg, and Hanover. They soon made it as far as Holstein or Schlesweig-Holstein. The cattle’s movement eventually extended into South Holland and through Belgium into Northern France. All cattle across these regions are believed to have the same origin due to their common characteristics.

Characteristics of European Holsteins

The common (and shared) characteristics of the cattle across the European region include:

  • Prevailing dark colors

  • Short curved horns

  • Large in size

  • Robust frames

  • High fertility

  • Abundant milk secretion (more modern trait)

These characteristics are not only shared by the cattle across these European countries but also describe the Holstein breed modernly found on dairy farms across the United States.

It is believed that the climate in this region plays a vital role in the Holstein cow’s appearance – adapting to survive the bitterly cold winters commonly found in the Netherlands and surrounding area. To survive in this climate, the cattle had to adapt to the surroundings, hence the dark colors, large size, and robust frame.

The North Holland Breed

Soon, the cattle within Northern Holland became known and described as the “large improved pure North Holland or Friesian breed of black and white piebald cattle.” These cattle became highly sought after and were exported to countries like the United States. With a wide range of characteristics, the Holstein cattle breed began (and remains) held in high regard in European countries – not only due to adaptability but also for their higher level of excellence compared to other breeds.

Part two of the Holstein Origins series will cover the exportation of Holsteins to America and their significance in dairy farming.

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