History of dairy cow breeds: Jersey

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

A 4-H youth shows her Jersey cow during 4-H Youth Dairy Days. Photo credit: Sara Long
A 4-H youth shows her Jersey cow during 4-H Youth Dairy Days. Photo credit: Sara Long

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, and now we turn to the Jersey breed.

Located off the coast of France and in the English Channel lie the Channel Islands, home to the Isle of Jersey, where this breed of dairy cattle originated. First called “Alderney cattle,” Jerseys are one of the oldest breeds of cattle having been brought to England in the 1740s and the United States in the 1850s. There are still thousands of Jersey cattle on the island where the breed began that are purebred, meaning they have not been mated with any other breeds of cattle. This is ensured by a strict ban, in place for about 150 years, on cattle imports so that no other breeds live on the island. It has only been in the last eight years that the ban on importing semen has been lifted.

There are many different ideas about how and where the cattle on the island came from. Some theorize the ancient cattle ancestors may have come from African stock, which would explain why modern Jerseys are more heat tolerant than some other breeds. Others think the original cattle may have migrated to the island from India on a land bridge that once connected the island to the French mainland. Another theory is that Jerseys may have originally been part of the Alpine Brown Swiss stock or from Brittany or Normandy spotted cattle. Despite the best theories, the exact history of the breed prior to the 1800s is unknown.

Noted for their fawn coloring, a shade of brown, Jerseys have a black muzzle and either a white or black tongue and switch, the hair at the very end of the tail. They may have some white markings on their hide mixed in with the fawn coloring. Jersey cattle are a smaller bodied breed, reaching only about 1,000 pounds as a mature adult compared to the larger Holstein and Brown Swiss cows, each with the potential to reach 1,400 pounds or more as mature animals.

Jersey cattle are very efficient grazing animals and can thrive is many different climates and geography types around the globe. Over time, this breed has been selected to produce very high components, which are butterfat and protein, in their milk. The volume of milk Jersey cattle produce may be less than that of larger bodied breeds, but the concentration of components is much higher.

For more information about the breed, check out these great resources:

Other articles in this series

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