The Guernsey cattle breed originated in the Channel Islands between France and England and is named for the Isle of Guernsey, which is the most western of the group. The Jersey breed was developed on the neighboring island of Jersey, and the two breeds are related. Cattle were first brought to Guernsey from Brittany over 1,000 years ago. Subsequent imports brought cattle from Normandy, and this founding population was variable in size and in color, including white, red, black, brindle, and fawn. Over the next several centuries, cattle on the island were selected for the richness and quantity of their milk, and performance was gradually improved. Channel Islands cattle were exported to England beginning in the 1700s, where they were widely used in the establishment and improvement of other breeds.
There was extensive trade between the Channel Islands and England, France, and the Netherlands, and cattle were part of this trade until the early 1800s. At that time, imports into Guernsey were stopped and the island herds were closed. Since then, the export of breeding stock from the islands has been a major agricultural enterprise. The closing of the island herds encouraged the standardization of the islands’ breeds. Cattle shows, which began in 1828 on Guernsey, hastened the process. Guernsey breeders selected their cattle for consistency of color within a range of fawn to golden with white spotting and for golden skin. Today, Guernseys are medium to large in size, with cows weighing 1,400 pounds and bulls 2,000 pounds. The breed is usually horned, though polled strains have been developed. Cows are noted for their quiet dispositions.
A distinctive characteristic of the breed is the golden color of its milk, which results from exceptionally high levels of carotene, a precursor to Vitamin A. It is thought that the Guernsey excels in its ability to absorb this nutrient and transfer it to butterfat. Guernsey milk has been promoted under the trademark “Golden Guernsey.” Butter made from the milk is also distinctively golden. Guernsey cattle were first imported to North America in the 1830s, with importations peaking in the late 1800s and early 1900s. The Guernsey Cattle Club was formed in 1877. The breed was a significant genetic foundation for the American dairy industry, contributing to the general mix of dairy cattle as well as being used as a purebred.
Guernseys have had a prominent place in American agriculture, but the breed has fallen into decline in recent decades. With the dairy industry focused exclusively on the quantity of milk produced under confinement conditions, and pricing favoring the quantity of fluid milk over the quality of the components, such as protein and butterfat, the Guernsey’s strengths lost market value. Between 1970 and 1990, annual registrations of purebred calves dropped by 60%. Some breeders have sought to stop this decline by increasing milk production, often through the introduction of Red Holstein. This strategy hasn’t been successful at increasing production enough to make the Guernsey competitive with the Holstein, and instead, it has caused the breed to lose some of its genetic distinctiveness.
The Guernsey is strong numerically, especially in Britain, but the breed has an uncertain future. It’s not clear if the Guernsey can take advantage of the movement to grass‑based dairying, like the Jersey, nor is it known if changes in component pricing may return some of the market value to its milk. Traditionally the breed was a good grazer, able to produce on quality pastures, and adaptable to a variety of climates and conditions. These abilities will be called upon if the Guernsey is to regain its historic place as a leading dairy breed.
Did you know:
The Livestock Conservancy is America’s leading organization working to save over 150 heritage breeds from extinction. We rely on the support of our members, grants, and donations from the public to raise the $700,000 a year needed to maintain our conservation work with rare breeds of farm animals. Click here to learn how you can help.