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Jersey cattle
A tawny-colored Jersey with a characteristic white ring around its black nose.png
A tawny-coloured Jersey with a characteristic white ring around its red nose
Country of origin British Isles
Distribution world-wide
Use
Traits
Weight
  • Male:
    540–820 kg (1,200–1,800 lb)
  • Female:
    400–500 kg (900–1,100 lb)
Coat variable
  • Cattle
  • Bos (primigenius) taurus

The Jersey is a British breed of small dairy cattle from Jersey, in the British Channel Islands. It is one of three Channel Island cattle breeds, the others being the Alderney – now extinct – and the Guernsey. It is highly productive – cows may give over 10 times their own weight in milk per lactation; the milk is high in butterfat and has a characteristic yellowish tinge.

The Jersey adapts well to various climates and environments, and unlike many breeds originating in temperate climates, these cows can tolerate heat very well. It has been exported to many countries of the world; in some of them, including Denmark, France, New Zealand, and the United States, it has developed into an independent breed. In Nepal, it is used as a draught animal.

History of the breed

Jersey cattle judging-1
Jersey cattle being judged at a show in Jersey, home of the breed
Bill pets a Jersey
Jersey cows are well known as curious and gentle cattle.

As its name implies, the Jersey was bred on the British Channel Island of Jersey. It apparently descended from cattle stock brought over from the nearby Norman mainland, and was first recorded as a separate breed around 1700.

The breed was isolated from outside influence for over 200 years, from 1789 to 2008.

Before 1789, cows would be given as dowry for inter-island marriages between Jersey and Guernsey. This was, however, not widespread.

In 1789, imports of foreign cattle into Jersey were forbidden by law to maintain the purity of the breed, although exports of cattle and semen have been important economic resources for the island. The restriction on the import of cattle was initially introduced to prevent a collapse in the export price. The United Kingdom levied no import duty on cattle imported from Jersey. Cattle were being shipped from France to Jersey and then shipped onward to England to circumvent the tariff on French cattle. The increase in the supply of cattle, sometimes of inferior quality, was bringing the price down and damaging the reputation of Jersey cattle. The import ban stabilised the price and enabled a more scientifically controlled programme of breeding to be undertaken.

Sir John Le Couteur studied selective breeding and became a Fellow of the Royal Society; his work led to the establishment of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society in 1833. At that time, the breed displayed greater variation than it does today, with white, dark brown, and mulberry beasts. However, since the honey-brown cows sold best, the breed was developed accordingly. In 1860, 1,138 cows were exported via England, the average price being £16 per head. By 1910, over 1,000 head were exported annually to the United States alone. It is now the fastest-growing dairy breed in the world.

On 1866, at the annual general meeting of the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society, H.G. Shepard noted in his history that "it was resolved – on the motion of Col. Le Couteur, that the Hon. Secretary be hereby invited to open and to carry on a "herd book" in which the pedigree of bulls, cows, and heifers shall be entered for reference to all the members of the Society." In 1869 for the first time, prizes were awarded at the society's shows for herd book stock cattle.

The States of Jersey took a census of stock in 1866, and Jersey then supported 12,037 head of cattle, of which 611 were bulls.

In July 2008, the States of Jersey took the historic step of ending the ban on imports, and allowing the import of bull semen from any breed of cattle, although only semen that is genetically pure enables the resultant progeny to be entered in the Jersey Herd Book. For many decades, each of the 12 parishes in Jersey would hold cattle shows in the spring, summer, and autumn, followed in turn by the main shows held by the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society, where the best of the parish shows would compete. The colour of the rosette secured by a prize-winning cow was said to determine its export value. Today, the RJAHS holds two shows a year, where usually five or six of the remaining 23 herds compete against each other for the top prizes. A Jersey cattle show is also held in Jersey, by the West Show Association.

In February 2010, semen from an impure breed Jersey bull had been imported into the island despite strict laws and checks, and 100 cows had been impregnated with the semen. Their offspring will not be recorded in the Jersey Herd Book.

Jersey cattle were exported to the United States from about 1850. A breed society, the American Jersey Cattle Club, was formed in 1868. In the USA, a distinction is sometimes made between the "American Jersey", which is comparatively coarse and large and has been selectively bred mainly for milk yield, and the original or "Island" type; the latter may also be called "Miniature Jersey".

Characteristics

The Jersey cow ranges from 400 to 500 kilograms (880 to 1,100 lb). Factors contributing to the popularity of the breed have been their greater economy of production, due to:

  • The ability to carry a larger number of effective milking cows per unit area due to lower body weight, hence lower maintenance requirements, and superior grazing ability
  • Calving ease and a relatively lower rate of dystocia, leading to their popularity in crossbreeding with other dairy and even beef breeds to reduce calving related injuries
  • High fertility
  • High butterfat (4.84%) and protein (3.95%), and the ability to thrive on locally produced feed

Jerseys occur in all shades of brown, from light tan to almost black. They are frequently fawn in colour. All purebred Jerseys have a lighter band around their muzzles, a dark switch (long hair on the end of the tail), and black hooves, although in recent years, colour regulations have been relaxed to allow a broadening of the gene pool.

The cows are calm and docile; bulls may be unpredictable or aggressive.

Jersey cattle have a greater tendency towards postparturient hypocalcaemia (or "milk fever") in dams, and tend to have frail calves that require more attentive management in cold weather than other dairy breeds due to their smaller body size (which results in an increased surface area-to-mass ratio, increasing heat loss).

Famous Jersey cows

Jersey cow sculpture by John McKenna, St Helier
Sculpture by John McKenna, unveiled in 2001 and on display at West's Center, St Helier
  • Brown Bessie, the famous champion butter cow of the Chicago World's Fair dairy test, averaged over 18 kg (40 lb) of milk a day for five months, and made 1.3 kg (3 lb) of butter a day.
  • Huronia Centurion Veronica 20J EX-97% is a well-known show cow of the Jersey breed. In 2003, she was sold for $85,000 at public auction. She was the 2006 World Dairy Expo Supreme Champion. She has also been named the All-American Grand Champion Jersey.
  • Mainstream Barkley Jubilee holds the top two records for milk production for a Jersey cow. She produced 49,250 lb of milk after calving at 3 years and 6 months of age, and 55,590 lb after calving at 4 years and 8 months old.
  • Lily Flagg, raised in Northeast Huntsville, Alabama, champion butterfat and milk producer of 1892. She produced a record 1047 lb, 3/4 oz of butter, as well as 11,339 lb of milk. Her owner threw party in her honour, going so far as to paint his house "butter yellow" for the occasion. She was a "Cow worth Kissing", her value to the community was so high.
  • Duncan Belle, sired by Highland Magic Duncan, was named the winner of the 2000 Great Cow Contest. This came after she was named the Reserve Grand Champion of the All-American show in 1993. She was also named All-Canadian cow between 1991 and 1993.
  • Evie, who played the titular role in the 2019 film First Cow.
  • Musqie Iatola Martha EX-97% is one of the most elite show cow in the Jersey Breed. She is a three time Royal Agriculture Winter Fair Supreme Champion and a two time World Dairy Expo Reserve Supreme Champion as well as a World Dairy Expo Supreme Champion in 2016. She is the youngest cow of any breed to achieve the EX 97 score. She has also been All American cow in 2015.
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