Dairy Cattle

By: E. Dale Odom

Type: General Entry

Published: September 1, 1995

Very few cattle used exclusively for dairy purposes were found in Texas before the 1880s. Before that, of course, most farmers, planters, and townspeople kept cows, drank milk, and made butter and possibly cheese, but the cattle that produced for them were almost all general purpose and were also used for beef and as draft animals. Since the cattle industry in Texas mostly stemmed from Spanish or Mexican roots, and longhorn cattle were known as "exceedingly poor milkers," early Texas milk cows produced small quantities of milk compared to late-twentieth-century Holstein cattle. Very likely, a few Durhams, Devons, and Ayrshires were brought into Texas by Anglo-Americans before the Civil War, since those breeds were present in other southern states. Before the 1880s, however, there was only a small amount of commercial production from dairy cows near the larger towns and among German-Americans in Texas. The only place such commercial milk production existed was in the rougher, non-planting land around such towns, and thus the few cattle used primarily for dairy purposes could be found in those regions. There were probably already grade or mixed versions of both Jerseys and Holsteins in Texas, but in 1880 the first purebred Jerseys were imported, and in 1884 the first purebred Holstein calves were born in the state. These became the two main breeds in Texas dairy history. In the late 1800s and early 1900s Jerseys coming from other southern states were far more popular than any other dairy breed. One reason was that they were more resistant to tick fever (see TEXAS FEVER) than Holsteins or Ayrshires imported from the north. A second, more significant, reason for their popularity was that until the mid-1900s most milk was marketed as cream, butter, or cheese rather than as whole milk, and Jerseys produced milk with a high butterfat content. In 1949, 75 percent of the estimated 1,283,000 milk cows in Texas were Jerseys.

About 1950 the dairy business entered an era of revolutionary change. A combination of forces-including widespread artificial insemination, which greatly improved the milk-production potential of each animal-allowed a phenomenal decline in the number of dairy cows without much corresponding decline in total dairy production. As early as 1948 Texas had thirty artificial-breeding associations. Milk producers began to specialize in dairying and as a result made changes in feeding and general management that aided cows with a greater genetic capacity for producing milk. Consequently there were phenomenally rapid increases in production per animal in Texas and in the United States. Dairy cattle numbers in Texas declined from 1,283,000 in 1949 to 297,921 in 1974, with little decline in the total amount of milk produced. Not only did the number of dairy animals decline strikingly, so did the number of farmers engaged in producing milk. In 1945 there were 321,223 farms that reported sales of dairy products; in 1974 only 13,687 farms reported having dairy cattle. Though the number of dairy cattle in Texas reached a low point in 1974, the number of dairy farms dropped still lower, and by 1987 there were 5,899 farms that sold dairy products-but they reported having 356,538 dairy cows, an increase of more than 58,000 over the 1974 figure. Total milk production had increased as well, but increases in production per animal leveled off after the early 1970s. In 1987 the relatively small number of dairy farmers in Texas sold more than a half billion dollars in dairy products.

There was also a rapid and striking change in the pattern of milk marketing that began about the mid-1900s; the change had a dramatic effect on dairy breed preference in Texas. Before the mid-1900s the largest percentage of milk had been marketed as cream, butter, or cheese instead of as whole milk. Consequently butterfat production was a primary objective. From the 1950s onward, however, dairymen sent most Texas milk to market as whole milk. Since they were paid only a small premium for butterfat production, and most of their money was earned on pounds of milk sold, farmers rapidly switched to Holsteins, which produced much milk, but little fat. By the 1980s only a few herds of purebred registered Jerseys and Guernseys were left in Texas. Furthermore, mixtures of those breeds were not to be found in commercial dairy herds in the state. Neither did most commercial dairies milk any purebred Jerseys or Guernseys along with their Holsteins to keep butterfat production from dropping too low; this was because it was not generally feasible to run 1,400-pound Holsteins in the same pastures, lots, and barns with 700-pound Jerseys and Guernseys, because of injuries inflicted by the larger and heavier breed. Though in 1989 Texas ranked first in the nation in the number of all cattle, beef cattle, sheep, lambs, and goats, it ranked tenth in the number of dairy cows. Receipts for wholesale milk from 380,000 Texas dairy cows made up about 7 percent of all Texas farm receipts in 1989, though only 6,000 Texas farms reported milk sales in that year. In the early 1990s, 95 percent of the dairy industry in Texas was located east of a line running from Wichita Falls to Brownwood to San Antonio to Corpus Christi. Leading milk-producing counties at that time were Erath, Hopkins, Comanche, and Johnson, which together produced nearly 44 percent of the milk in Texas. At that time most Texas dairies were members of one of four marketing cooperatives, of which Associated Milk Producers, Incorporated, was the largest. Average annual milk production per cow in 1990 was 14,645 pounds; in 1991, 14,258 pounds; and in 1992, 14,867 pounds. In the early 1990s the major dairy products manufactured in Texas included ice cream; condensed, evaporated, and dry milk; creamery butter; and cheese.

BIBLIOGRAPHY: Lewis C. Gray, History of Agriculture in the Southern United States to 1860 (Washington: Carnegie Institution, 1933; rpt., Gloucester, Massachusetts: Peter Smith, 1958).

  • Agriculture
  • Products (Animal)

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

E. Dale Odom, “Dairy Cattle,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed July 07, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/dairy-cattle.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

September 1, 1995