History of dairy cow breeds: Guernsey

Learn more about Guernsey dairy cattle and other major dairy cattle breeds in the United States.

Chelsea Barnes (Ottawa County, left) and Amber Szakel (Shiawassee County, right) celebrate with their winning Guernsey heifers at the 2015 Michigan 4-H Youth Dairy Days.
Chelsea Barnes (Ottawa County, left) and Amber Szakel (Shiawassee County, right) celebrate with their winning Guernsey heifers at the 2015 Michigan 4-H Youth Dairy Days.

Have you ever looked at a dairy cow and wondered about the history of the breed? This series from Michigan State University Extension will explore the history of the seven major breeds of dairy cattle in the United States. Holstein cattle were the first in the series, followed by Jerseys and Ayrshires, and now on to the Guernsey.

Guernsey cattle are another breed that originated in the United Kingdom. In fact, Guernseys are a neighbor to the Jerseys, having been developed on the Island of Guernsey in the Channel Islands. Guernseys are thought to have originated from a mix of two French breeds: Brindle cattle, also known as Alderneys, from Normandy and the Froment du Leon from Brittany. In 1700, Guernseys were recognized as a separate breed and by 1789 it was illegal to import other cattle on the island to prevent cross-breeding.

Guernseys made their debut in the U.S. in 1840 when three Alderney cows were brought to New York, followed by a bull and two heifers from the Island of Guernsey. The American Guernsey Cattle Club was formed in 1877 to register and maintain genetic information on the breed. Now known as the American Guernsey Association, the organization continues to register cattle as well as lead many other programs to advance and promote the breed.

A Midwest Guernsey herd of note is the Hoard’s Dairyman Farm on the north side of Fort Atkinson, Wisconsin. The farm, open since 1899, is owned and operated by Hoard’s Dairyman to ensure the staff at the publication have a direct connection to the dairy industry triumphs and trials. The farm was renovated in 2007 to include a new freestall barn and double-10 herringbone parlor for the Guernsey and Jersey cattle living there.

Guernsey cattle are fawn (a light reddish-brown) and white with hide markings clearly defined. The light coat color allows them to tolerate heat better than some of the darker breeds of dairy cattle. They are a medium-bodied cow, weighing about 1,200-1,300 pounds at maturity. Guernsey cattle are adaptable to different climates and different management strategies; they produce well in both pasture and confinement dairy farms.

This breed is famous for the “golden” color of their milk, which happens because they have a high concentration of solids – 4.7 percent ± 0.4 butterfat, 3.4 percent ± 0.2 protein according to Dairy Records Management Service, an affiliate of the Dairy Herd Improvement Association. It’s also because of a high concentration of beta-carotene, the pigment that gives carrots their orange color; the body converts this substance to Vitamin A, which is important for healthy eyes, immune system, skin and mucous membranes. The high concentration of components also makes Guernsey milk more desirable for cheese processing.

Since Guernsey cattle are smaller bodied, they are very efficient at converting the feed they consume into milk. They require less food to produce milk with higher components than other dairy breeds. They also tend to reach maturity earlier, which means they can be bred sooner and become part of the milking herd at a younger age. They are known for a mild temperament and disposition and generally have easy calvings. They are the only breed to have no known and documented undesirable genetic disorders. The breed is popular around the world, including the island where they originated. Check out the English Guernsey Cattle Society, American Guernsey Association, Guernsey Cattle Society of Australia Incorporated, Canadian Guernsey Association, Guernsey New Zealand and South Africa Guernsey Cattle Breeders' Society websites.

For more information about Guernsey cattle, visit the World Guernsey Cattle Federation website.

Other articles in this series

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