The Guernsey cow produces some of the best milk in the world regarding beta-carotene and omega 3 and 6 content and is renowned within the dairy farming industry across the world as being a high-yielder of golden coloured milk whilst maintaining a docile and friendly temperament.
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The Guernsey first became popular in English dairies in the late 18th century. Her reputation as a unique producer of rich yellow coloured milk and butter soon gave her the title Golden Guernsey.
The early origins of the Guernsey breed
The early history of the breed is shrouded in mystery. Very little evidence exists about the cattle of Guernsey prior to the early 19th century. Most theories, such as one that suggests that the cattle were brought to the island by monks who had been banished from the French monastery at Mont St Michel in 960 AD, cannot be verified. However, it is generally thought that the true origins of the Guernsey breed lie in the development of cattle that were imported to the island from the nearby French mainland and the breed does have a similarity to Isigny cattle originating in the Manche and Calvados regions of France.
From Alderney to Guernsey
The cattle became known as Guernsey cattle when the Royal Guernsey Agricultural Society was formed in 1817, with the specific aim of preserving the beauty of Guernsey cattle. However, they were previously known as Alderneys.
The name Alderney was used indiscriminately for cattle from all the islands in the Guernsey Bailiwick (Guernsey, Alderney, Sark and Herm). Accounts vary as to why the name Alderney became accepted. Some say that Alderney cattle were the first ones to be exported to England, and that subsequently when they had earned a reputation for the quality of their milk; others were exported from the other islands to meet the demand. Perhaps more generally accepted now is the belief that as all cattle were sent to England on the Alderney boat, they were all called Alderneys irrespective of their island of origin.
Quite a considerable trade in cattle had built up during the second half of the 18th century, but at that time animals were able to move freely between Jersey and Guernsey, and between the islands and France.
The Guernsey that we recognise today
Early paintings of the cattle are also quite illuminating in that several appear to be black, black and white, or brindle, and it was only later when a Herd Book had been created that the present colouration of the Guernsey breed was fixed. Indeed, in the early years it was recorded that Dutch cows had been imported into the islands. Until quite late it was an accepted tradition for a bride to take her own cow to her new home as a dowry, and if she happened to come from Jersey she would most likely bring a Jersey cow with her to Guernsey. However, more than 100 years of breed selection has effectively removed these off-types, although occasionally a calf is still born with a black nose, more representative of the Jersey breed than the Guernsey’s pink nose.
Protecting the breed
At the beginning of the 19th century the supply of island bred cattle was running short, and some dealers were importing French animals and sending them to England as Alderneys. The earliest Law prohibiting the importation of cattle into Guernsey was passed by the Guernsey Royal Court in 1814, when it was forbidden to import bulls, lean cows or heifers from any country that was "not subject to His Majesty" (de Guerin, 1947).
Introducing the Guernsey to the world
In 1817, the society exhibited at the World Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, and attempted to open up a regular London market for Guernsey butter.
Throughout the 19th century, agriculture was developing in the island, chiefly brought about by the export trade of Guernsey cattle to England. But by 1884 when the English Guernsey Herd Book was set up, a new and much more lucrative trade was developing; that of supplying cattle to the developing United States of America.
Real concerns were expressed about the demise of the local dairy industry during the 1930s that led to States intervention in the marketing of milk. This occurred in 1937 only 4 years after the Milk Marketing Scheme was voted into existence in England. From that time, all milk sold within the island has been pasteurised.
Currently milk is supplied to the Dairy by 18 registered farms on the island, including one totally organic farm accredited by the Soil Association (as is the Guernsey Dairy). This compares to over 300 in the post war period, and 500 pre-Second World War, although cow numbers have remained relatively static.
The Guernsey cow remains one of the most famous breeds in the world and is affectionately known as the Golden Guernsey due to the rich colour of her milk and hide.
- There have been no importations of cattle to the island since the early 19th century, which means that Guernsey is free from many cattle diseases that occur in the UK or mainland Europe.
- There are approximately 1,500 milking cows on the island at any one time with 1,200 others, mostly heifers (female animals 0-2 years of age) being reared as replacements for the existing population.
- In 1950s there were approximately 400 dairy farmers on the island caring for around 2,000 milking cows - an average of 5 cows per farm. Today, there are 18 working dairy farms that produce milk to meet the islands’ liquid milk requirements.
- Following calving, each cow produces milk over a 10-month period (known as the lactation cycle).
- On average a dairy cow will produce approximately 5,500 litres of milk per year, although some cows in island herds now regularly produce in excess of 7,000 litres.
- Local herds produce approximately 8 million litres of milk per annum, 6.6 million litres of which is consumed locally as liquid milk – the remainder being used to produce milk products butter, cream, cheese and ice-cream.
- Each cow will eat approximately 15 tonnes of grass during the summer and about 12 tonnes of silage during winter. In addition to this, most cows will also consume 2 tonnes of imported cereal based feeds each year.
- Dairy cows can live to over 10 years of age.