The objectives of the study were to compare the ovarian activity of Holstein-Friesian (CH HF), Fleckvieh (CH FV) and Brown Swiss (CH BS) dairy cows of Swiss origin with that of Holstein-Friesian (NZ HF) dairy cows of New Zealand origin, the latter being used as a reference for reproductive performance in pasture-based seasonal calving systems. Fifty, second-lactation NZ HF cows were each paired with a second-lactation Swiss cow (17, 15 and 18 CH HF, CH FV and CH BS respectively) in 13 pasture-based, seasonal-calving commercial dairy farms in Switzerland. Ovarian activity was monitored by progesterone profiling from calving to first breeding service. CH BS cows produced less energy-corrected milk (mean 22·8 kg/d) than the other breeds (26·0–26·5 kg/d) during the first 100 d of lactation. CH HF cows had the lowest body condition score (BCS) at calving and the greatest BCS loss from calving to 30 d post partum. Commencement of luteal activity (CLA) was later for NZ HF than for CH FV (51·5 v. 29·2 d; P <0·01), with CH HF and CH BS intermediate (43 d). On average, NZ HF and CH HF cows had one oestrous cycle before the onset of the seasonal breeding period; this was less (P<0·01) than either CH FV (1·7) or CH BS (1·6). There was a low prevalence of luteal persistency (3%) among the studied cows. First and second oestrous cycle inter-ovulatory intervals did not differ between breeds (20·5–22·6 d). The luteal phase length of CH BS during the second cycle was shorter (10·6 d) than that of the other breeds (13·8–16·0 d), but the inter-luteal interval was longer (9·8 d v. 7·0–8·0 d). The results suggest that the Swiss breeds investigated have a shorter interval from calving to CLA than NZ HF cows.