This past summer I worked as an intern for Utah State’s large animal research facilities. There were two type of cattle used for research studies this past summer: black angus and Jersey. Having only worked with the beef cattle, I wanted to use this breed summary as an opportunity to get to know this increasingly popular dairy breed.
The Jersey cow’s origin can be traced back to the British Channel Island of Jersey. Although the exact year that the Jersey was recognized internationally as a breed is unavailable, the first record of the breed was made in England as early as 1771 favoring their milk and butterfat production. In 1789 the island of Jersey banned the import of foreign cattle in an effort to have a more scientifically controlled breeding program. With breed standards set, the newly defined Jersey was brought to the United States in the 1850’s from the nearby Norman mainland. By 1910 over a thousand head were exported annually to the United States from Europe. As of 2013, it is estimated that there are roughly 854,000 Jerseys in the U.S. including both milking cows and young cattle stock. The Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society began a registry in 1866 called the Jersey Herd Book to track the pedigree of all Jerseys. They claim that almost all registered Jerseys can be traced back to the Herd Book that is maintained on the island of Jersey.
Purebred Jersey cows can be distinguished by their black noses encircled by white muzzles, fawn coat coloring and the cows’ hard, black hooves that make them less vulnerable to lameness. They are one of the smaller cattle breeds. Adult cows weigh between 800 to 1,200 pounds and stand about 4 feet tall at the withers or shoulders. The bulls are also small in comparison to other breeds; weighing 1,200 to 1,800 pounds. While they are small, Jersey cows produce a lot of milk relative to their size. It has been recorded that most Jerseys can produce 17 times their own weight in milk each lactation and it is also considerably higher quality milk than from other dairy breeds. Oklahoma State Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources finds that Jersey milk has 15 – 20 percent more protein, 15 – 18 percent more calcium, 10 – 20 percent more phosphorous and higher levels of vitamin B12 than the classic Holstein. It’s also rich in butterfat. Jersey milk is preferred for cheese and butter making; 25 percent more cheese and 30 percent more butter can be produced at a lower cost than with average, Holstein milk. Cheese made from Jersey milk also uses less land, water and fuel, as well as generates less waste and greenhouse gases compared with cheese produced with milk from Holsteins.
According to American Jersey Cattle Association, the reduction in the carbon footprint when 1.1 billion pounds of cheese is produced from Jersey milk, rather than Holstein milk, is equal to taking 443,900 cars off the road each year. Jersey cows are renowned for easy births (difficult birth rates for Jersey cows are less than 1%) and can also have their first calves as early as 15 months of age. The potential payoff for early maturity is significant; an earlier return on the money invested in raising each heifer. Jerseys are versatile and can adapt to various dairy management systems. They do well in herds of all sizes and are hardy, efficient grazers; they also perform well in confined barns, dry lots and free-stall environments where they mix with larger breeds. Although these small cows seem spectacular, there are a few disadvantages to the breed. Jersey cows can be more nervous than other dairy breeds and Jersey bulls are considered the least docile among the common cattle breeds. Eight undesirable genetic factors have been flagged in Jerseys that, if found, can restrict which countries they can enter and whether the individual should reproduce: Limber Legs, Rectovaginal Constriction, Jersey Haplotype 1 and 2, Bovine Leukocyte Adhesion Deficiency, Deficiency of Uridine, Monophosphate Synthase, Spinal Muscular Atrophy, and Bovine Spinal Dysmyelination. More specifically the Jersey cattle in the United States have an extremely high carrier rate for the recessive Jersey Haplotype 1 (JH1) defect; which was found to cause early embryonic death.
Another disadvantage that comes with the Jersey cow is the high occurrence of milk fever. In 2017 partnering veterinary schools in Namibia and Rwanda performed a study comparing the incidence of milk fever in Jersey and Holstein cows. It was found that Jersey Cows were three times more likely to have milk fever after parturition than the Holstein.
The advantages of using Jersey cattle significantly outweigh the disadvantages of the breed. I have newfound respect for this outstanding producer and look forward to watching their popularity grow in the U.S.