The Humble Beginnings of a Golden Breed
The Isle of Guernsey, a tiny island in the English Channel off the coast of France, is the birthplace of the Guernsey cow. About 960 A.D., besieged by buccaneers and sea rovers, the Island came to the attention of Robert Duke of Normandy. He sent a group of militant monks to educate the natives to cultivate the soil and defend the land. The monks brought with them the best bloodlines of French cattle — Norman Brindles, also known as Alderneys, from the province of Isigny and the famous Froment du Leon breed from Brittany — and developed the Guernsey.
Importation to America
Introduction of the Guernsey to America occurred around September 1840, when Captain Belair of the Schooner Pilot brought three Alderney cows to the port of New York. Later, Captain Prince imported two heifers and a bull from the Island. These animals were the original stock of a great majority of the Guernseys that make up the national Guernsey herd today.
With the understanding that positive identification is crucial to preserving the purity of the breed, a group of Guernsey breeders founded the American Guernsey Cattle Club in 1877. Since then, the organization has registered over 3 million Guernseys. Now the American Guernsey Association, the national organization for the registration and promotion of Guernsey cattle, has introduced many other programs for the advancement of the breed.
Making Strides in Genetic Improvement
Genetically, the Guernsey of today is much different than that of 960 A.D. due to the advent and commercialization of artificial insemination, a process by which a cow is inseminated without ever seeing a bull. A particular bull can sire thousands of offspring. This genetic improvement has been generated by a progressive and aggressive young sire program. Young bulls’ semen is distributed throughout the Guernsey population until the bulls have a large enough daughter population that their offspring’s qualities are predictable. As proven bulls, these sires may have as many as 1,500 daughters in 400 herds. However, three times a year the list of available sires is updated. At that time, new bulls with superior genetics are added and older sires lose their “active” status. This ensures that the breed-wide effort to improve the Guernsey’s sound genetic base continues.
Guernseys’ Golden Product
The Guernsey cow is known for producing high-butterfat, high-protein milk with a high concentration of beta carotene. Being of intermediate size, Guernseys produce their high-quality milk while consuming 20-30 percent less feed per pound of milk produced than larger dairy breeds. They are also known for having a lower projected calving interval and have a younger average age of first calf heifers than the larger breeds. Other attractive characteristics of Guernseys are their lack of any known undesirable genetic recessives and their adaptability to warmer climates.
The Guernsey is also an excellent grazer. She is a cow that easily and efficiently works well in pasture-based milk production. Because of her grazing abilities, temperament, calving ease and ability to efficiently produce milk with less feed than other breeds, she is ideal for intensive grazing. Dairy producers can realize her profit potential while reducing management costs.
The Tanbark Trail
During the summer and fall of the year, Guernsey enthusiasts from all over the United States congregate at state fairs and national shows to have their Guernseys judged. This show season is referred to as the ‘Tanbark Trail.’ Each year, approximately 200 breeders participate in four national shows which culminate in one national contest, the All-American Contest, to find the Guernsey that best represents the ideal conformation of the breed.
The Guernsey Today
Data from herds enrolled in the American Guernsey Association’s Dairy Herd Improvement Register program during 2014 shows the breed average to be 17,578 pounds of milk, 776 pounds of butterfat and 575 pounds of protein on a mature-equivalent basis. Today, even as numbers decrease across the country in all dairy breeds, the Guernsey registration numbers are increasing. The Guernsey cow has proven herself competitive in every operation, from small intensive grazing to large commercial dairies, both mixed-breed and 100% Guernsey, as evidenced throughout the country. The commitment of the AGA Board of Directors, staff and Guernsey breeders is stronger than ever. Take advantage of Joining the Guernsey Scene and those who are taking advantage of this profitable cow!