The Jersey receives its name from the island of Jersey in the Channel Islands group. Not surprisingly, it shares a common ancestry with the Guernsey, and in fact the two breeds were once crossed on a fairly regular basis. Dairy cows were the typical dowry on the Channel Islands, so a young woman’s Jersey cow might breed with her new husband’s Guernsey bull and vice versa.
However, the Channel Islands were eventually inundated with French cattle, which produced milk far inferior in quality. England had placed a tariff on cattle imported from France, but they did not tax cattle from the Channel Islands. To avoid the tariff, the French first landed their cattle at Jersey and the other islands before sending them on to England. While the cattle were on the islands, some unscrupulous farmers occasionally bought a few, then sold them or their crossbred offspring as pure Channel Island stock.
In response, the Channel Islands began restricting importations of cattle in the late 1700s and early 1800s. This ensured that Channel Island cows would always continue to produce excellent golden milk, high in butterfat and protein. A reputation thus established, Jerseys and other Channel Island breeds came into high demand, first in England, then in America.
The Jersey may have come to America as early as the 1650s, but the bulk of the importations did not begin until the 1850s. Once the flood began, it was many years before it stopped. By 1910, Americans were importing over a thousand Jerseys annually.
While on our shores, the breed began to split into two types. The first was a small, dainty animal known as the Island type and largely kept for show purposes. This was the foundation of today’s miniature Jersey. The second version of the Jersey was larger and coarser in appearance, but more productive. This was called the American type, and was considered the farmer’s Jersey.
Of course, even the hard-working farmer’s Jersey could not compete with the Holstein for gallons of milk per year. After World War II the Jersey fell out of favor in America. Breeders scrambled to bring it back to the forefront.
Over the last few decades, the Jersey has continued to grow larger in size, and it can now produce more milk, too—at the expense of butterfat and protein. However, the Jersey is currently the third most popular dairy breed in America (after the Holstein and its close kin the Red and White), and the fastest-growing dairy breed in numbers worldwide. The miniature Jersey is also enjoying great popularity, thanks to recent enthusiasm for small-scale farming.
The Jersey is a favorite both as a family cow and as a breed for direct marketing and organic production. Miniatures are recommended exclusively for small homesteads. Both varieties have a reputation for excellent cheese, although Jersey milk is also well adapted to making butter, yogurt, and ice cream.
Steers can be used for either beef or draft purposes. Crossbreeding Jerseys with other breeds can also produce good beef steers, and sometimes heifers suitable for dairy use.
The Jersey may very well have more personality than any other cattle breed, probably because it is also one of the smartest breeds. These cows are highly sensitive and have excellent memories. They can also be a little nervous and must be handled calmly and gently. Children can be disturbing to Jersey cattle.
When treated well, a Jersey cow will respond with passionate affection and loyalty. Treated poorly, she will find a way to get revenge. If spoiled, she will go to great lengths to figure out just how much she can get away with, and will probably derive hours of pleasure from provoking people.
Jersey steers tend to share this excitability, stubborness, and remarkable intelligence. This can make them challenging for beginning ox teamsters, as they have the ability to outwit unwary humans.
The bull is something to be reckoned with. The general consensus on Jersey bulls is that they are some of the most vicious farm animals in existence. Horror stories abound about these unpredictable creatures. Suffice it to say that only an extremely experienced individual should even consider owning a Jersey bull.
Although Jerseys generally have a reputation for better health than Holsteins, they are still rather delicate. Metabolic disorders are fairly common, as is pinkeye. Jerseys should not be allowed to have their first calf too early because coming into production at a young age can permanently damage their health.
Jersey calves are particularly delicate. They are prone to hypothermia and dehydration unless tended very carefully. Owners report that they thrive better on their mother’s milk than on calf formula, but they are still somewhat frail even then.
- Availability (standard size only).
- Small size, which is easier on pastures (both varieties).
- Excellent heat tolerance.
- Excellent grazing instincts.
- Longevity when given good care.
- Early maturity.
- Good fertility when kept calm.
- Exceptional calving ease.
- Amazing quantity of milk for its size.
- Usually good butterfat and protein content.
- Milk high in vitamins and minerals.
- Good meat quality if given sufficient time to finish properly.
- Very lean beef.
- Good tenderness and texture.
- Uniform appearance, which makes putting together a matched draft team easier.
- Fast working pace.
- Variability in areas such as milk quality and maintenance requirements.
- Somewhat difficult temperament.
- Poor hardiness.
- Poor tolerance of extreme cold.
- Short teats, which can be hard to milk.
- Difficulty of finishing for beef unless given plenty of time and grain.
- Low beef yield.
- Meat very easy to overcook.
- Unusual flavor, which can actually be a plus for some people.
- Yellow fat, which can deter some.
- Poor prices at sale barn for steers and bull calves.
- Limited strength as a draft ox due to small size and light muscling.
Choosing a Breed of Cattle
Is the Jersey right for you? This book will help you assess your five needs and make that decision. Includes a brief profile of the Jersey breed. Free sample pages are available here.
The Jersey, Alderney, and Guernsey Cow
An old book in the public domain. Includes the history of Channel Island cattle, as well as information on how to select, feed, house, breed, and milk a cow.