Íslenskir nautgripir

Kontakt: farm-animals@nordgen.org



English name: Icelandic cattle
Weight: 470kg (cows), 700kg (bulls)
Height: 125cm (cows), 150cm (bulls)
Colour: Multiple colours and patterns
Type: Dairy breed
Number of offspring: 1-2
Birth weight: 32 kg
Number of milking cows in Iceland, 2019: 26,271 
Total number of cattle in Iceland, 2019: 78,000 


Not at Risk Vulnerable Endangered Critically Endangered Extinct


The origin of the Icelandic cattle can be traced back to the settlement of Iceland in the 9th century by Norse migrants. Research has shown that the breed is related to the native breeds in Scandinavia.  Records from the 18th and 19th centuries contain references of import of cattle to Iceland, but all indications point to the impact on the current Icelandic population being very limited. In the early 20th century organized breeding programmes for the Icelandic cattle was initiated by establishment of several breeding associations. The breeding programmes initially emphasized reduction of the number of horned animals but never placed any emphasis on colour and patterns. Consequently, there are only around 1-2% horned animals in the population today, whereas the colour diversity of the breed is considerably wider than seen in many other bred species.  

When cattle breeding associations where established across Iceland, their role was twofold. They took responsibility for record keeping of pedigrees and produced products as well as for jointly owned bulls in their membership area. Overall management of record keeping of production has from the beginning been under the auspices of The Farmers Association of Icelandan umbrella organization covering farmer’s interests. Around the middle of the 20th century, supervision of the conduct of production records was largely transferred from cattle breeding associations to district agricultural associations, which by that time where operating across the country. In 1974 milk production records where computerized and in 2008 it was totally transformed by establishment of the electronic cattle database “Huppa”. Nearly all milk production in Iceland takes place on farms that keep records in Huppa. That implies 99% of the cow population is being recorded. 

In the middle of the 20th century one started to use artificial insemination (AI). The practice became common throughout the country when the use of deepfrozen semen was adopted around 1970. Today this method is used on most cattle farms in Iceland. Only one bull centre is operated and this serves the entire country.  

From the time that AI became centralized for the whole country, the breeding programmes have been operated as a single unit. In 1974 progeny tests of AI bulls began. The programme aims at breeding with varying emphasis on several traits. Although products play the most important role, fertility, longevity, udder health, udder and teat type, milking and temper are all aspects of the breeding goal. Care has always been taken to minimize inbreeding in the stock and this has been successful in comparison with larger cattle breeds in many neighbouring countries. Breeding assessments are carried out in accordance with BLUP methods. This means that it is even more important than before to closely monitor inbreeding trends in the population. Preparation for genomic selection began in 2017 and is expected to be in place by 2022.  


Activities characterizing the breed is an important part of conservation. This is also the case for the Icelandic cattle, even though the breed currently is the only Nordic native cattle breed that is categorized as Not at Risk of extinction based on the population size. Through characterization we learn whether the breed possesses unique characteristics we may need in securing food production for future generations. NordGen conducted a study, covering 6 different categories of characterization, showing that until 2019, 18 different easily accessible studies had been performed. 16 of the studies focused mainly on investigating molecular diversity by use of microsatellites within the breed as well as between Icelandic cattle and several other cattle breeds. However, for the rest of the categories the amount of available knowledge on characterization is limited to one study focusing on coat colour, one on mastitis, one on production traits and one on prenatal death. Finally, no scientific studies investigating the socio-economic importance of the breed was foundTherefore, there is still a great need to characterize the Icelandic cattle, so that we are better off in conservation of the breed.  


Milk: 2019: 6.334 kg

Published: 19 october 2020


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Image: Jón Eiríksson

Published: 19 October, 2020