Guernsey Cattle: Heritage Livestock Breeds

The Guernsey cow is a British dairy breed with a great reputation as a milk producer.
Janet Vorwald Dohner
August 2010
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Guernsey cattle are strong milking cows, but are a heritage livestock breed that is rapidly dwindling in its population numbers. The lovely Channel Islands are the home of three famous breeds of dairy cows that bear their names: Alderney, Guernsey, and Jersey. From the early 1700s, when they were first exported, these famous milk cows were often collectively called Alderneys, perhaps because that island was the closest to Britain. These island breeds differed from each other but were alike in one unusual way. Along with the South Devon, they possess a specific allele that is common in African and Asian cattle but is not present in any other British breed.

Island isolation shaped these cattle. The nine islands that make up the chain together have an area of just 75 square miles. The islands enjoy a mild Mediterranean climate, and the residents have traditionally used all the available land to cultivate fruits, vegetables, and flowers and to pasture cattle and other livestock. In the Middle Ages, Guernsey was under the protection of Robert, Duke of Normandy, who sent a group of monks to the island to help the residents defend and support themselves. The first monks came to the island in A.D. 960, bringing cattle from Brittany with them. In the eleventh century, another monastery was founded, and these monks imported brindled cattle from France. The Guernsey cow does resemble some French breeds, including the extinct Isigny and the gravely endangered Froment du Léon. All Channel Island cattle were used for dairy production as well as draft and meat production.

The first Channel Island cattle were imported to Britain in 1724. Within fifty years, hundreds of cattle were being imported annually. Two-thirds of the cattle came from Jersey, and the remainder came from the other islands. At first the “Alderneys” in England and Scotland were kept mainly by the rich and supplied butter for the table. Refined in appearance and light in color, they also decorated the aristocracy’s estates. Channel Island cattle were exhibited in Britain by 1844, and they were separated into their different breed classes in 1871.

Jersey and Guernsey placed self-imposed restrictions on their breeds around the beginning of the nineteenth century to prevent French cattle from being imported to the islands and mixing with the native cattle. On Jersey, the breed standard was established in 1834. The herd book was established in 1866, and a society was organized twelve years later. The recording of Guernsey pedigrees began on that island in 1881, and by 1901, milk recording was undertaken by the Royal Guernsey Agricultural and Horticultural Society.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, there were about 100,000 Jersey and Guernsey cows in Britain. They continued to grow in popularity in commercial dairies as providers of bottled milk and cream. Guernseys were also widely exported to Ireland, North America, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), Kenya, Japan, and South America. In 1955, the Guernsey represented about 5 percent of the dairy herd in England and Wales, with more than 130,000 cows, or twice the number of Jersey cows.

Guernseys were first imported to the United States by two schooner captains in the 1830s and 1840s. Impressed by the quality of the breed’s dairy products, Captain Prince brought the first Guernseys back to his home in Boston. Three “Alderneys” brought to New York and Captain Prince’s two heifers and bull from Guernsey became the basis of the American Guernsey herd. Large imports were made about 1850 and then again from 1870 to 1880. The first Guernsey association was founded in 1877.

The Guernsey, with its greater than average cream and butter production, initially found greatest popularity as a house cow. Keeping a few Jersey or Guernsey cows in the herd or using a purebred Guernsey bull on the herd was also profitable for the dairy farmer, for it increased the richness of the herd’s milk. By the 1880s, butter dairies were commercially successful near population centers. Sweet, fragrant “gilt-edged” butter was especially valuable and sold for as much as a dollar a pound.

The Guernsey breed established a solid reputation, and the name “Golden Guernsey” was trademarked for Guernsey milk sales. Joseph France, a doctor, was the first owner of a well-known Guernsey farm and dairy called Mt. Ararat, in Maryland. Interestingly, France was also an unsuccessful candidate for president against Herbert Hoover.

In 1920, the USDA recorded the Guernsey population at nearly 2 million head. Through the identification of excellent bulls and cows, the Guernsey was improved in both size and milking ability. By 1970, although Guernseys were already being affected by the growing dominance of the Holstein in the milk business, the breed still registered more than 40,000 calves each year in the United States. American Guernsey semen was exported back to Britain for herd improvement.

Sir John Abott, a Canadian minister of agriculture, imported the first Guernseys to Canada in 1878. First popular in the Maritimes and far across the country in British Columbia, three-quarters of the Canadian Guernseys are now raised in Ontario. The breed society was founded in 1905.

In Britain, Canada, and the United States, the Holstein-Friesian revolution drastically changed dairy farming. The large Holstein can deliver high volumes of milk. Wherever government quotas or premiums rewarded volume more than high solids, the Guernsey suffered.

The rate of decline has been rapid and continual. The American Guernsey Association now registers less than one-third the number of cows than it did twenty years ago. Today only about 1,000 Guernseys are registered in Canada, and slightly more than 6,000 are registered in the United States. In Britain, the Guernsey accounts for only about 1 percent of the annual artificial insemination requests, about equal to that of the Ayrshire. In contrast, the Holstein accounts for at least 95 percent of the dairy cattle in all three countries. The Jersey has held its own as the second most popular dairy breed in the world, with a global population of about 6 million. This compares to the 9 or 10 million Holsteins in the United States alone.

The Guernsey and Jersey are very different cows in appearance, although they are still mistaken for each other. The Guernsey is usually white-and-fawn colored or “broken colored” in various shades from yellow to brown to red. The end of the tail, legs, and underside are usually white. The Guernsey can also be solid colored. The yellow color in the ears is believed to indicate the richness of the milk. Yellowish color is also seen around the eyes and on the skin. The muzzle is cream colored and the feet are amber in color. Although the Guernsey has lovely short, arching horns, there is a polled variety in North America. At 54 inches tall or more, the Guernsey is usually larger than the Jersey, although the average cow may be smaller. The desirable minimum weight is 1,200 pounds for cows. The Guernsey also provides a better beef calf than the Jersey. The calm, docile Guernsey gives a golden-colored milk. This color comes from high levels of beta-carotene, believed to reduce the risk of certain cancers in humans. The American Guernsey Association promotes Guernsey milk under the Beta Life trademark. Guernsey milk is also very high in solids, both protein and fat. In the dairy solids market or when milk pricing is based on multiple components, the Guernsey produces a very profitable milk. American Guernseys now average 14,667 pounds of milk, 659 pounds of butterfat, and 510 pounds of protein yearly. The top producing herds have achieved more than 19,000 pounds of milk. Even when the fat is removed, Guernsey milk is especially flavorful.

Because the Guernsey cow is smaller than a Holstein-Friesian, she eats 20 to 30 percent less feed and then converts it into higher protein and fat levels, often resulting in an economic advantage for the dairy farmer. The Guernsey’s white-and-fawn coat increases heat tolerance and reduces heat stress, which affects milk production. Management costs are also lower. The Guernsey also calves earlier, more frequently, and with fewer difficulties than a Holstein. The breed is free of recessive genetic disorders. Studies at the North Carolina Dairy Processing Center have confirmed these positive advantages. Dairy farmers who kept both Guernseys and Holsteins reported not only that the Guernseys handled the heat better and had better udder health and fewer calving problems but that the solid components and milk production rates did not drop as much in the summer.

The World Guernsey Cattle Federation is promoting the breed’s positive traits. The Guernsey is an excellent choice for grass-based dairying or other less intensive farming techniques. The federation stresses the improved welfare standards of these systems, which can also be important to consumers. The affiliated national organizations will continue to stress the healthful aspects of Guernsey milk and promote the image of the breed. There is really no reason for the Guernsey’s decline other than breed blindness.

Guernsey Island breeders are still producing excellent stock for export. There has also been an interesting crossbreeding project in Brazil using the Guernsey on the Zebu, producing cattle with docile temperaments, high lactations, and tropical tolerance. The original Alderney, the cow with the “crumpled” horn that also resembled the Guernsey more than the Jersey, is extinct. The last of the native Alderney cattle were taken to Guernsey just before the German occupation of World War II, where unfortunately they were slaughtered for food. For a time it was hoped that the “Alderneys” in New England were indeed true Alderneys, but they proved to be Jerseys or Guernseys still called by that collective name.

Our thanks to Yale University Press for their kind permission to post this profile from The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds (Copyright 2001 by Yale University), by Janet Vorwald Dohner. This 500-page book is a definitive reference about heritage livestock, describing the history and characteristics of almost 200 breeds of poultry, cattle, pigs, goats, sheep and horses. The Encyclopedia of Historic and Endangered Livestock and Poultry Breeds is available from Amazon. 


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