The Jersey cow

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The Jersey cow


Considering that the breed originates on a small island in the English Channel, it is quite remarkable that the Jersey cow is the second most numerous dairy breed in the entire world after the Holstein, with an estimated global population of 2 million

Jersey cows in 1893
A traditional scene - butter making

There have been breeding programmes in many countries, including New Zealand, South Africa and the United States, but owners of some of the world's most important herds have traditionally turned to the island to acquire new animals.

1 cow = 1 tractor

It was not uncommon in the middle of the 20th century for a Jersey cattle farmer to be able to finance the purchase of a new tractor, and probably a family car as well, from the sale of a single cow overseas.

From 1763, when the States of Jersey first prohibited the importation of any cattle, until 2008 when they finally bowed to pressure from the few remaining breeders to allow cattle semen to be brought in, the famous Jersey breed remained 100 per cent pure in its native island.

Tax evasion

It is ironic that the initial ban on cattle imports had nothing to do with a desire to keep the island breed pure. Unscrupulous dealers, looking to cash in on the demand for true Jerseys in England would ship cattle into the Island from France, leave them there for a few months, and then export them to England, without import taxes, and sell them as Jerseys.

In 1866 the Jersey herd book was formed. Every pedigree Jersey cow in the world can trace its ancestry back to this record. The first animal registered in the herd book was a bull named ‘Dandy’, owned by Mr James Godfray of St Martin, and the first cow registered was named ‘Daisy’, belonging to Mr P Paisnel of St Clement.

Jerseys were exported to England during the 17th century and to America by 1850, Australia by 1854, New Zealand by 1862, Canada by 1868, South Africa by 1877, Sweden by 1893 and Denmark by 1896.

Cattle being exported through St Helier Harbour

Cattle on ships

Emigrants from Jersey took cows with them to provide milk on board. George Poingdestre took some Jersey cows with him to the USA in 1657. On long voyages sea captains were quite happy to have them on board, but once the destination had been reached the poor creatures were quite often cast overboard to swim ashore.

In 1882 the cow Khedive’s Primrose was sold to America for the incredible sum of £1,000, which in those days would have been sufficient to purchase an average size farm, house and buildings.

In the three years from 1830, some 5,756 head of livestock were exported. Over a hundred years later, in 1948, as trade resumed following the end of World War II, some 2,041 animals were exported from the Island which, at that time, had a population of 8,973 head of cattle with 2,404 heifer calves being registered in that year.

Other nations found the need for their own herd books. The American Jersey herd book started in 1868, the Canadian book in 1901, and the South African in 1906. Now there are large populations of the Jersey in Canada, Denmark, New Zealand, South Africa, the USA and other parts of the British Isles.

Docile and tolerant

The Jersey is a relatively small, docile, undemanding cow, tolerant of high temperatures and produces a large quantity of high quality milk in relation to its size and demand for food. The milk contains 18% more protein, 20% more calcium and 25% more butterfat than "average" milk.

Nobody knows the exact orgins of the Jersey cow. There have been cows in the island for over 1000 years and the Jersey was recognised as a separate breed around 1700. It was early in the 19th century that the most important work was undertaken with selective breeding, which led to the development of the breed into what it is now known. The leader of this work was Sir John Le Couteur, who concentrate on the breeding of the honey-brown cows which have become so famous.

This led to a dramatic turnaround. In the early 1800s the Jersey cow was described as having "a long head, bad horns, ewe necked, hollow backed, cat hammed and walking ill". However, by 1866 the Jersey had become an object of beauty and described as having "a lively eye, orange ears, a round barrel, short, fine deer-like limbs, a capacious udder with large developed milk veins and a fine tail".

The Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society was formed in 1833, partly to advance the development of the island breed, and soon received royal patronage. In 1860, 1,138 cows were exported at an average price of £16. A census of livestock six years later showed that there were 12,037 head of cattle in the island, including 611 bulls.

By 1910 over a thousand cows were exported every year just to the United States.

Jersey dairy

This history and description is taken from the Jersey Dairy website:

Origins of the breed

The history of the Jersey breed can be traced back to 6000BC to the middle east and even though is difficult to trace are probably descendants from the wild species Bos Primigenius, a wild savage beast better known as Aurochs.

Jersey cows and a bull on arrival in the USA
Milking in 1910

Heritage of the breed

Island farmers had always kept a few cows. But as well as the Jersey breed, some farmers were farming French cows. In 1786 the States of Jersey passed a new law, whereby any farmer who brought French cattle into Jersey would be fined 200 livres (about £3) for each animal. This law was later extended and finally an act of 1878 declared that no bovine animals could be imported into the island. This law has ensured the purity of the Jersey breed ever since.

The Jersey Herd Book was founded in 1866 by the Royal Jersey Agricultural and Horticultural Society (RJA&HS), whereby virtually all island herds became pedigree registered.

It is known that animals from Jersey were being exported as early as the 1700s - emigrants from Jersey took cows with them to provide milk whilst on board. With its good looks, gentle nature, strong constitution and rich milk, the Jersey cow soon became famous and farmers began selling their Jerseys' all over the world. The Jersey cow is now the second largest dairy breed in the world.

The importance of farming and cattle breeding in island life can still be seen at the Parish and Island Shows which attract cattle breeders from around the world who look to Jersey as the pure source of the breed.


Over the years farmers in Jersey have sought to breed healthy cows that produce top quality milk. This has resulted in Jersey cows being renowned for the quality of the milk they produce, which has long been recognised as being rich and creamy in texture and slightly yellow in colour.

Jersey cows are also renowned for their longevity, having on average five calves. A heifer (young female cow) starts breeding at the early age of 15 months, known as "a heifer-in-calf" and will carry the calf for 9 months before birth.

The Jersey cow's diet consists of grass during late spring and summer. This is supplemented with silage (picked grass), protein and nuts. Some cows wear a blue transponder around their necks, which controls their food intake in the milking parlour and in the fields.

A mature Jersey cow weighs approximately 450kg.



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