Dairy Barn, Canada Food and Agriculture Museum
The Museum’s working dairy barn is home to a herd of 40 to 50 dairy cows. This herd is made up of the six most common dairy breeds in Canada.
The Museum is also preserving the only dairy breed to have developed on this continent, the Canadienne.
To keep milk production consistent, the Museum has cows at different stages of gestation year round. Maternity pens change occupants regularly as expectant cows are watched for signs of labour and new calves are born.
Care and Feeding:
The first two days of milk are critical to a newborn calf because it is colostrum, an antibody-rich liquid that helps build the immune system. This milk is used to feed the calf only and is not marketed.
The average dairy cow eats around 10 kilograms (22 pounds) of food each day. This is divided evenly among hay for roughage and oats, soybean meal, and oil cake for protein. (Oil cake is ground flax or soya beans from which the oil has been removed.) In addition, each cow drinks a bathtub’s worth of water each day — more if it’s hot!
Museum staff milk the cows twice daily (6 a.m. and 4 p.m.). They use a modern milking machine that takes 3 to 5 minutes per cow, versus the 10 to 15 minutes hand-milking would take. Cows are milked 305 days a year and rest the other 60 days. The Museum’s milk goes to Dairy Farmers of Ontario to be processed and distributed in grocery stores. Visitors are invited to watch the 4 p.m. milking.
Dairy Cows in Canada:
Canada has one of the highest average milk-per-cow ratios in the world (8,738 kilograms per 305 days). Plus, Canadian milk is internationally recognized for its superior quality. There are over 20,000 dairy farms in Canada with an average 54 cows per herd. That totals approximately 1.2 million dairy cows. Ontario and Quebec produce the most milk.
Ayrshire cows get their name from the County of Ayr in Scotland, where they developed. They have a red and white coat and are known for the superior shape and quality of their udders. Ayrshires are efficient grazers and efficient milk producers. They produce an average of 25 litres of milk per day. They are also highly adaptable to all management systems.
As its name suggests, the Brown Swiss breed developed in Switzerland. However, “brown” is a bit of a misnomer, as the coat is usually grey/beige. Brown Swiss cows are large, robust, and very gentle. They are also naturally strong and rugged, having developed in pastures 3500 metres above sea level. The Swiss government supported the Brown Swiss’s development by offering prizes and subsidies for the best females and bulls in the country. The Brown Swiss’s average milk production is 25 litres per day, same as the Ayrshire. Like Guernseys, Brown Swiss cows produce milk with a high fat content.
The Canadienne is the only dairy breed to have developed in North America. It is descended from cows brought to Canada by Jacques Cartier and Samuel de Champlain in the mid-1500s and early 1600s. Prior to the 1950s, Canadiennes were the primary milking cows. Currently, however, there are less than 200 purebred females in Canada. Rare Breeds Canada has declared the Canadienne a rare breed. However, the Canadienne is a hardy breed. Through self-selection, these cows have inherited an ability to survive, reproduce, and give milk on poor feeds and throughout harsh Canadian seasons.
Canadienne milk is rich in fat and protein, making it perfect for producing specialized cheeses. The breed may be black, brown, tawny, or russet in colour. Generally, colouring is lighter along the back, around the muzzle, and near the udder.
The Guernsey is a breed of dairy cattle developed on the Island of Guernsey in the English Channel. The breed originated from French cattle brought to the island by monks about 980 A.D. Guernseys were first imported to Canada by Sir John Abbott, a former Prime Minister and Minister of Agriculture in 1878. These cows are very adaptable. They do well under close confinement, such as zero grazing or dry lot feeding. They also handle intensive and extensive grazing conditions well.
The Guernsey breed has been declared endangered by Rare Breeds Canada. Its numbers have declined dramatically in recent years. Guernseys are distinguished by their tan and white colouring. They produce an average of 23 litres of milk per day with a high fat content (similar to the Brown Swiss).
Holsteins have the highest average milk production (30 litres per day) and the greatest protein content in their milk. They also have a good food conversion ratio (the ability to turn food into milk). It’s no wonder, then, that they make up 90 percent of dairy cows in Canada. Most Holsteins are black and white, but some have a red and white coat. You can often see both sets of colouring at the Museum.
Jersey cows originally came from the Island of Jersey in the English Channel, off the coast of France. They were first imported to Canada in 1868. Canadian Jerseys are generally light fawn (deer-like) to black in colour. They may have white patches. With the highest fat content of all dairy breeds, milk from Jersey cows is perfect for cheeses, ice cream, and whipping cream. The Jersey is one of the smallest dairy breeds. Still, its milk production is close to that of the Guernsey at 22 litres per day.
Shorthorns were first brought to Canada in the early 1800s as a multipurpose breed. Shorthorn cattle could be raised for meat, produce milk, and serve as draft animals. Today, the Milking Shorthorn has developed into a hardy, good-natured, efficient milk producer. Like the beef cattle Shorthorn, the Milking Shorthorn comes in red, white, and roan (a blend of red and white hairs). It has an excellent food conversion rate (the ability to turn food into milk) and a moderately high milk output.