By Ken Scharabok – For those who only need one or two milk cows for the family and aren’t interested in large-scale dairy cow farming, one dairy cow breed in particular seems to stand out — the Jersey cow. Milk production from the Jersey ranks high in quality, rather than quantity.
The Jersey was developed on the Island of Jersey in the English Channel to produce milk on forage. It was one of the smaller breeds in Europe but has been bred up in size in the U.S. When treated with respect and kindness, they are gentle, docile animals. When treated otherwise, they can become vicious, particularly the bulls. They rank high as grazers, productivity of calves and for long and productive lives. Because of their smaller size, they need fewer nutrients than do larger cows and therefore can secure their requirements from a smaller area. They are inherently active and among the earliest of all breeds, including beef animals, to reach puberty.
The butterfat in it varies from 3.3 to 8.4%, with an average of about 5.3% compared to 2.6 to 6.0 percent, with an average of about 3.5% for Holsteins. The total solids content averages about 15% and butterfat constitutes 35-36% of the total solids, compared to about 28% in the Holstein. Their buttermilk is high in carotene, which gives the cream yellow color. The fat globules are the largest of any dairy bred, averaging 25% greater in diameter than those of the Holstein. Because of the large globules, the cream rises faster and churns more rapidly than does cream from other breeds. Due to the globules rising rapidly, and thus not incorporating as well into setting curds, Jersey cow milk production is not as suitable for cheese as some of the other dairy cattle breeds.
A most revealing table is included in Animal Agriculture: The Biology of Domestic Animals and Their Use by Man by Cole and Ronning, 1975, title “Comparative ratings on economic traits of 29 breeds of cattle now available to North American producers.” It included most dairy, dual-purpose and beef cattle breeds. On 11 cow, calf, carcass and bull traits considered, the Jersey cow received the top score in six categories: cow age at puberty, conception rate, milking ability, carcass tenderness, bull fertility cut ability and carcass marbling. When all three carcass traits were considered, it was tied for best with the Guernsey; however, the Guernsey did not do as well in other categories as the Jersey.
There has been criticism of Jerseys in that their body fat has a yellowish color when used for meat, but this is common among even beef breeds raised predominately on forages. In France, meat with yellowish fat is preferred to the white fat which comes from grain feeding. The French also prefer meat from a cow which has had several calves over that of a young animal. Thus, the Jersey would seem to be a better freezer animal than most beef breeds.
It should be kept in mind that both the Jersey and Guernsey (from the Island of Guernsey) were developed with washed up seaweed as part of their regular diet. Some writers believe there is a correlation to the natural minerals and iodine in the seaweed and the higher butterfat content of these two breeds. Kelp meal, made from sea kelp dried slowly, is available in the U.S. and is sometimes used as a supplemental mineral source.
Whether for milk production or meat for your freezer, many people homesteading today experience big benefits with small cattle breeds. Countryside Network has extensive information about miniature cattle breeds, including raising Dexter cattle. Some of our contributors have even shared hilarious stories about their “adventures” raising miniature cattle, including tackling DIY fence installation projects to keep in their cattle.
Originally published in 2000 and regularly vetted for accuracy.