The breed is known as the Dairy Shorthorn in the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia and South Africa, and as the Milking Shorthorn in Canada, New Zealand and the United States. The Illawarra cattle breed of Australia is largely descended from the Dairy Shorthorn. The Swedish Red and Norwegian Red breeds also have some Shorthorn ancestry.
The Dairy Shorthorn is an average-sized breed, with mature cows averaging 140 cm (55 in) tall at the tailhead, and weighing 640 to 680 kg (1,410 to 1,500 lb). They are red, red with white markings, white, or roan. Red and white coat colour genes in purebred Milking Shorthorns are co-dominant, resulting in the roan coloration and unique colour patterns seen in the breed. Average milk production for the breed is about 7,000 kg (15,000 lb) in an annual lactation of 305 days, with 3.8% butterfat and 3.3% protein.
Milking/Dairy Shorthorn cattle are also known for high levels of fertility, grazing efficiency, and ease of management that result in the breed being high suitable for low-input dairy operations in various production environments. Milking Shorthorns are known for their durability, longevity, and ease of calving as well as their versatility in a number of production environments.
The breed was established in the 18th century in Northeastern England, in the Valley of the Tees River bordering the counties of Durham, Northumberland and York. Bates and Booth established a "dairy-type" strain of Shorthorns on their farms in the region, and that strain has remained until this day.
Dairy Shorthorn cattle, known at one time as Durhams, were among the first cattle to be imported into Australia.
One of the first official demonstrations of the production ability of Milking Shorthorns was made at the World's Exposition in Chicago in 1893 where two of the leading cows of the test were Kitty Clay 3rd and Kitty Clay 4th, the latter standing third in net profit over all breeds. These sister cows became the foundation for the Clay cow family of Milking Shorthorns, developed at Glenside Farm, Granville Center, Pennsylvania.
The first dairy cows imported into New Zealand were Shorthorns, when in 1814, they were shipped from New South Wales. Shorthorns were used as draught animals in bullock teams, were good milkers and provided good meat. Shorthorn herds were established by the early 1840s, and for a long time Shorthorns were New Zealand's most popular cattle breed.
The breed has served as part of the foundation for other red dairy breeds, including Swedish Red cattle, Angeln cattle and Illawarra cattle in Australia (with some Ayrshire ancestry). The Ayrshire cattle breed was originally formed from dairy-type Shorthorn cattle in Scotland.
The Milking Shorthorn breed has largely embraced a form of genetic expansion in populations around the world, in an effort to continue genetic improvement while avoiding the inbreeding concerns that can arise in a small population. As a result, the breed has seen dramatic improvement in both production and dairy conformation in the past 30 years while retaining a breed identity. Genetic expansion programs vary by population, but all populations have incorporated some level of outside genetics. Red Holstein genetics have been used in all populations to some degree. In Canada, selected Swedish Red genetics have been entered into the herdbook at 75% purity, while these genetics have 50% purity standing in the United States. Illawarra genetics from Australia are also largely incorporated by all Shorthorn herdbooks as 100%, minus any non-Illawarra/Shorthorn genetics (i.e. Red Holstein). As a result, the Milking Shorthorn breed in Canada has the lowest average inbreeding percentage of any dairy breed, despite having a relatively small population size.
While these genetic expansion programs have been embraced, national breed associations have been instrumental in ensuring that the breed works to retain the characteristics that make it an efficient alternative in the dairy industry. Some national breed associations have been active in either approving sires for use or directly selling semen on a range of sires of varying purity percentages. All countries have different herd book mechanisms for tracking the percentage of purity of each registered animal but some are more rigorous than others. The breed has largely ensured that breeders are able to follow whatever breeding program suits their needs, resulting in both herds of "blended" Shorthorns with many animals at less than 50% purity, as well as herds in several countries were most animals are purebred.
There are small groups of Milking/Dairy Shorthorns that have not incorporated outside genetics and remain true to the conformation and production levels of Shorthorns from the earlier part of the 20th century. The Dairy Shorthorn population in Australia, as well as the Native Milking Shorthorns of the United States are examples of such groups. In some countries, these animals may be known as Dual Purpose Shorthorns, as they tend to have higher fleshing capabilities than traditional dairy cattle.
The Milking/Dairy Shorthorn breed has seen population growth in several countries in the past decade after many years of population decline. The Canadian Milking Shorthorn Society had their highest registration and membership totals in over 25 years in 2012. All major populations have seen an increase in interest in Milking Shorthorns by dairy producers, artificial insemination organisations, and crossbreeders.
The Milking/Dairy Shorthorn breed was initially founded on the Coates Herd Book, widely thought to be the first pedigree herd book for cattle in the world. This herdbook includes both beef and dairy animals but the herdbook is divided between the two sections. Herdbooks in Canada and the United States were also combined until formation of independent breed societies in these countries.
The American Milking Shorthorn Society is the largest Milking Shorthorn population, registering in excess of 3000 animals per year. They are closely followed by the Shorthorn Society of Great Britain and Ireland. New Zealand, Canada, Ireland, Australia and South Africa have registered populations of Milking/Dairy Shorthorns. The Illawarra Cattle Society of Australia has the largest population of Milking Shorthorn-type cattle.
- The Shorthorn Society of United Kingdom and Ireland breed history Archived 2008-10-20 at the Wayback Machine
- http://www.cmss.on.ca Canadian Milking Shorthorn Society web site
- Oklahoma State University breed profile Archived 2008-04-26 at the Wayback Machine
- Beginnings of New Zealand’s dairy industry Retrieved on 7/2/2009
- FAO, DAD-IS: “Dairy Shorthorn/Australia”. Accessed 15 August 2016.
- The Livestock Conservancy: “Milking Shorthorn - Native”. Accessed 15 August 2016.
- History of the Shorthorn Breed Archived 2011-10-05 at the Wayback Machine