The Ayrshire originated in the district of Ayr in the south west of Scotland, and was regarded as an established breed by 1812. James Rawbone of Somerset West imported the first Ayrshires to South Africa in 1890. Since then the breed has established itself as one of the important dairy breeds in the country.
The Ayrshire cow is known for its excellent feed conversion ratio and its ability to graze. Its ability to function in either warm of cold climates is illustrated by the fact that here are more Ayrshire cows in Russia than in the rest of the world, and in Kenya , with its tropical climate, 67 % of the dairy cattle are Ayrshires.
The milk is high in components and gives exceptional cheese yields. Ayrshire milk is referred to as "the ideal drinking milk". An Ayrshire range of products is marketed through Woolworths in South Africa, and also successfully in other parts of the world. Demand for Ayrshire milk is set to outstrip supply in 2009 as Woolworths dairy category growth continues unabated at 22-25%. Some breeders have resorted to using sexed semen or embryo transfer to speed up herd growth.
Ayrshires adapt well to a wide variety of management systems, from intensive stall systems in the United States, Canada and Europe, to variations of grazing and zero-grazing systems in South Africa and Australia, and extensive grazing systems in New Zealand.
The Ayrshire breed has been part of South Africa’s dairy history for almost a hundred years and in fact will be celebrating the centenary of the Ayrshire society in 2017. Ayrshires are a unique breed of dairy cow that originated in Ayr in Scotland and were imported to South Africa by ship, by the early breeders. They are brown and white and well known for their hardiness, good udders and feet and legs. Their most distinguishing feature however is the taste of their milk. The combination of the slightly higher butterfat and protein as well as lactose and the smaller fat particles which are well dispersed through the milk give Ayrshire milk a unique silky smooth texture and slightly sweeter taste than regular milk. This taste advantage is what sets Ayrshire apart and has enabled Woolworths to develop a very strong milk brand and made it a destination shop for the discerning customer. As such it does sell as a premium product and is able to support a higher price per litre.
This unique taste profile of Ayrshire milk also resulted in trials and experiments being conducted in the UK to see if consumers preferred and were able to distinguish between Ayrshire and regular milk from the other breeds like Holstein and Jersey. The results were overwhelming and resulted in Marks and Spensor, a large supermarket chain in the UK, launching a range of Ayrshire milk and by products in their stores in the late 1990’s. In fact before Woolworths embarked on their Ayrshire branding project, they conducted taste tests with their consumers. It was found that in blind taste tests that 87% of consumers chose Ayrshire as the best tasting milk. These tests took place in 1986 and in 1987 Woolworths launched the Ayrshire brand in their stores. Today it is the largest sub brand that they have and it is growing at 14% per annum, well ahead of many sectors of their food business.
As a result of the successful marketing of the Ayrshire brand in Woolworths there has been a positive spin off for many Ayrshire breeders and the Ayrshire Society, who serve them by registering their animals, keeping pedigree records and generally ensuring the continued growth and viability of the breed. Ayrshires are considered a heritage breed and because of their relatively small numbers, they are under threat from the much larger breeds like the Holstein. It is then vital for the 43 Ayrshire breeders who supply Woolworths to receive the premium that they enjoy for the milk they supply. It is this premium that ensures their viability and the continued existence of the breed in South Africa.