Two competing Swedish breeds with different profiles but of equal size

Swedish dairymen have since long access to two high producing dairy breeds: the Swedish Red (SRB) is primarily an Ayrshire breed and the Swedish Holstein (SLB) a holsteinised Swedish Friesian strain.

Swedish dairymen have access to two high producing dairy breeds: the Swedish Red (SRB) is primarily an Ayrshire breed and the Swedish Holstein (SLB), a “holsteinised” Swedish Friesian strain. SRB used to be the most common breed until recently, but nowadays the two breeds constitute each nearly 50 % of the cow population, leaving only 5 % for Jersey, Swedish polled (SKB) or crossbred cows.

The breeds - short historical background

SRB – an Ayrshire breed of today

In the middle of the nineteenth century Ayrshire and Shorthorn bulls were imported from Great Britain in order to improve the national herd of red and brown cows. Two red herd books emerged from these importations. The RSB-breed (Red and White Swedish Breed) was mainly based on the Shorthorn importations, whereas the Swedish Ayrshire breed, as the name implies, was based on the importations of that breed from Britain . In 1927 these two breeds merged into SRB (Swedish Red and White Breed). In the beginning the RSB influence was greater than the contribution from the Ayrshire breed. A dramatic change took place when the regular exchange of bull sire semen started about 40 years ago with the Finnish Ayrshire breed and the Norwegian red breed (NRF). As a consequence a large proportion of the present SRB-cows have Finnish Ayrshire bulls in their pedigrees for many generations. Thus, SRB should be considered an Ayrshire breed today, and consequently it belongs to that group of breeds in the regular international evaluations by Interbull. The SRB breed is spread in herds all over the country, although it initially dominated dairy production in the middle of Sweden.

465 Krona, Sire Grinderum 91121
Bengt Wiren, Ånnebo Farm, Vikinstad

622 Alma, Sire Terry 90112
Lars & Mats Andersson, Nästgården Alsta Vimmerby

SLB – holsteinised Swedish Friesian

Swedish Lowland Cattle (SLB) was the name given to the Swedish black and white strain of the Friesian cattle breed, which got its first herd book in Sweden in 1913. Imports from Holland and Ostfriesland constituted the base and regular imports from Holland and Denmark improved the Swedish strain. The Dutch short muscular type was popular until the fifties in Skåne, the most southern province in Sweden , whereas a more productive and taller type was kept in the west coast province of Holland . The Holsteinisation process started rather late in Sweden partly because the Polish FAO-trial proved SLB to be the most productive Friesian strain in Europe . The first imports were made in 1960, but it was not until 1985 that a majority of the Swedish AI-bulls had 50 per cent North-American Holstein genes or more in their pedigrees. Nowadays the Holstein percentage in the pedigree of the Swedish AI-bulls is approaching 100 per cent. The main effect of the Holsteinisation of the progeny tested SLB-bulls appeared in the ten year period from 1991 to 2001, when the milk production index improved by 20 per cent, or by two per cent a year. However, if a longer period is considered, almost the same production increase has been noted for SRB, as is shown in Figure 1. In the first half of the last century, Swedish Holstein cows were primarily found in the most southern parts of Sweden , but are now present all over the country. Even in areas around the Arctic Circle there are high yielding herds with this breed!

Two high yielding breeds at international top

In Sweden 86 % of the dairy cows are officially recorded and they are distributed in about 8000 herds. That means that the average herd has about 43 cows. In Table 1 the average yield figures are given for the recording year 2001/2002. As the figures illustrate, few countries can compete with Sweden in yield level. In 2001 it was the first time that any of the breeds produced on average more than 9000 kg ECM. The SRB cows have a somewhat higher concentration of fat and protein in the milk, whereas the yield level is somewhat higher for the SLB cows.

Table 1. Official production figures from milk-recording in 2001/2002.

Breed Milk kg Fat % Prot % Fat+Prot kg ECM kg No of cows
SRB 8427 4.27 3.43 649 8717 161682
SLB 9234 3.94 3.28 667 9082 162248

The graph below shows that the production increase has been quite large in both breeds ever since artificial insemination and milk recording became common tools in Swedish dairy cattle breeding. When comparing the production figures, one should also keep in mind that the Holstein cows are a little heavier than the SRB cows. The average heart girth of milk-recorded cows in the first lactation is 188 cm for SRB and 193 cm for SLB, which corresponds to a live weight difference of about 30 kg (5%) between the breeds.

What about other characteristics of the breeds?

In all dairy breeds, problems with fertility and udder health are the most common reasons to cull cows. In Sweden there is a very complete recording of these traits, which allows comparisons between breeds as well as the opportunity to monitor any changes over time.

Female fertility

Fertility statistics are based on AI data and information collected through the milk-recording scheme. In Table 2 average fertility results for 2001 are summarised for both SRB and SLB cows.

Table 2. Fertility parameters for SRB and SLB cows in 2001

Breed Age at first calving, months Calving- first ins., days Calving- last ins., days Calving interval, months No of ins. per female

Cows treated infertility, %

SRB 29.4 86 117 13.0 1.70 7.2
SLB 29.6 92 128 13.3 1.71 8.2

The SLB breed used to be the one with the best fertility but as the figures below indicate there has been a decline in daughter fertility of the SLB breed as a consequence of the Holstein influence. The largest breed difference is seen in calving interval, which is 11 days longer for the SLB cows.

Calving difficulty and stillbirths

In Table 3 calving performance results are presented. There is a large breed difference in the frequency of difficult calvings and stillbirths in the first parity in favour of the SRB breed. In later parities the difference is still there but is of much lower magnitude. The results for SRB indicate, when compared with international literature, that the figures are among the lowest found for dairy breeds.

Table 3. Calving performance according to the milk recording statistics in 2001

Breed Difficult calvings first parity, % Stillbirths first parity, % Difficult calvings, later parities, %

Stillbirths later parities, %

SRB 3.80 5.29 1.42 4.45
SLB 7.32 10.69 1.74 5.08


The Swedish index for mastitis resistance has two information sources, the cell count level and the diagnosis incidence, recorded by the veterinarians in the compulsory national program. In Table 4 the breed means are given for mastitis incidence (number of diagnoses per 100 terminated or broken lactations) and uncorrected cell count, expressed as geometric means in 10000-units.

Table 4. Mastitis incidence in 2001 – 2002 and uncorrected cell count, expressed as geometric means.

Breed Mastitis incidence Cell count
1st lactation
Cell count
2nd lactation

Cell count
All lactations

SRB 15.0 5.1 7.5 7.6
SLB 19.7 6.9 10.0 9.7

The mastitis incidence is 31 per cent higher for the SLB cows than for the SRBs. The cell count level for all lactations is 28 per cent higher.

In summary, the SRB breed has somewhat better fertility, lower mastitis rate and significantly lower frequencies of difficult calving and stillbirth in comparison with SLB. As regards production, the main differences refer to the milk composition, whereas the differences in total energy corrected yields are small, especially if the body size of the cows is considered.

Realised genetic gains – production


The graphs below illustrate the INTERBULL ranking from November 2002 for the Swedish Milk Index (sub-indices are yields of milk, fat and protein) of bulls from different countries in the Ayrshire and the Holstein group respectively. SRB belongs to the Ayrshire group and SLB to the Holstein group. The graphs show the average level for all bulls born in the years given on the x-axis.

Since 1993 the Ayrshire group has been dominated by Finnish Ayrshire and SRB. For bulls born in 1997 the SRB breed is in the international top. In the Holstein group the SLB-bulls nowadays are close to the leading countries USA, The Netherlands, France, Italy and Denmark.

Realised genetic gains - non production traits

The graphs below illustrate the development of the daughter fertility index for Swedish AI-bulls used in different years from 1985 to 1997. In these graphs the years on the x-axis indicate the years of insemination. In the SRB breed the level of the daughter fertility has remained on the same level since 1985 thanks the fact that the trait has been considered in the selection. There was a drastic drop in daughter fertility among the SLB-bulls until 1992. Since then the situation has stabilised. The deteriorated fertility is the result of the antagonistic relationship between production and daughter fertility and of the Holsteinisation with use of bull sires from North America without any daughter fertility information.

The genetic trends for all the traits in the Total Merit Index used in Sweden are monitored annually for young and progeny tested bulls based on proof averages weighted by the number of inseminations of the individual bulls. For mastitis the trend for the young bulls is negligible while the curves for the progeny tested bulls have values well above the mean value of 100 indicating a positive selection response.

The final graphs illustrate the trends for survival rate unadjusted for production.

For both breeds the index value for the progeny tested bulls has been around 110 for the last six years, which means that the selection applied has increased the ability to survive. The SLB graph includes the development for all imported Holstein semen. In the eighties, daughters of foreign bulls (green line) had a significantly higher stay-ability than the daughters of Swedish sires (red line). From 1990 to 1995 the curves run parallel, but for bulls used after 1995 the domestic bulls show the highest values. 1997 is the last year of insemination when comparisons can be made for young bulls and imported bulls. The weighted proof for the Swedish progeny tested bulls was 111.1 that year.

Related Links:

Website on Swedish Red Dairy Cattle

Genetics based information on Swedish breeds


Bengt Lindhé

Bengt Lindhé
1 articles

Svensk Avel

Svensk Avel