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Compared with other dairy animals, cattle present many advantages in terms of ease of milking, udder size and the animal’s ability to store milk, and milk yield. In fact, cattle milk constitutes the largest share of the total world milk production. There are far more milking cows in developing than developed countries, but animals in developing countries often have lower milk yields and shorter lactations. Poor animal performance in small-scale dairy systems in developing countries is the result of such factors as climate (high ambient temperature, humidity), low-quality feed, low levels of concentrate supplementation, low genetic potential for milk production of multi-purpose animals (in addition to milk and meat these cattle also often provide draught power), and high incidence of disease.

In developing countries, most milk is produced by small-scale producers with local or indigenous cattle breeds; however, in peri-urban areas the use of improved or cross-bred cattle is increasing to meet the rising urban demand for milk and milk products. Indigenous breeds are well adapted to local conditions (e.g., the thermal environment, available feed and water resources, endemic diseases and parasites), but have low production and usually need to be milked with the calf at foot. Most indigenous breeds in tropical regions are of the zebu type (Bos indicus) with the characteristic hump and dewlap. Some of the most widely distributed dairy breeds of zebu cattle are Sahiwal, Red Sindhi, Tharparkar, Kankrej, Gir, Kenana and Butana. Bos taurus indigenous cattle are found in the tropical regions of West Africa and Latin America, and include N’Dama and Criollo breeds.

Specialized dairy breeds such as Friesian and Jersey have high milk yields but are less adapted to harsh environments and require high levels of management, feeding, housing and veterinary care. If such conditions are not provided, improved dairy cows cannot express their genetic potential. In recent decades, bulls of specialized dairy breeds have been used for cross-breeding with indigenous cows to obtain animals that combine higher milk yields with adaptation to the local environment. 

Did you know?

  • In developed countries cow milk production is decreasing, together with the numbers of dairy operations and animals, but productivity per cow is increasing. In developing countries, production is increasing, together with the number of lactating cows.
  • Average milk yields vary widely among countries, mainly because of differences in production systems (e.g., animal nutrition, breeds). In countries such as Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Ethiopia and Nigeria, the average cattle milk yield is ≤ 500 kg/year. In countries with developing dairy sectors, such as the Islamic Republic of Iran, Peru and Viet Nam, the average cattle milk yield is > 2 000 kg/year.
  • In much of Asia milk is becoming the main output of cattle production.
  • Major producers of cow milk are the United States of America, India and China.
  • The Holstein-Friesian is the most widespread cattle breed in the world; it is present in more than 150 countries.
  • Specialized dairy breeds (Bos taurus) are almost exclusively used in temperate and developed regions; most of the cattle in developing countries, particularly in the humid tropics, are of the zebu type (Bos indicus).
  • The countries with the most dairy cattle are India, Brazil, China, Ethiopia and Pakistan.