Moo-ve over Holsteins, the little brown cow is gaining ground.
Not since our nation’s centennial have so many Jersey calves been registered in Canada, says Steven Smith of Clanwilliam, president of the Manitoba Jersey Cattle Club. He says the breed came just shy of 10,000 registrations last year, breaking the record set in 1967.
“The ’50s and ’60s were the heydays of the Jersey breed in this country. People were still shipping cream, butter was a big part of everyone’s lifestyle, so the Jersey breed had its glory days,” Smith said. “Come the 1970s things changed — the pricing for milk changed and because the Jerseys don’t produce as much volume, they sort of slowly but surely became less desirable for breeders to have in their herds.”
All that has changed now that butter and other higher-fat dairy products are back in consumers’ good books.
“We are seeing an increase in the number of people inquiring about adding Jerseys to their herd and that is because they are looking for efficient ways to fill their butterfat quota,” said Kathryn Roxburgh, general manager of Jersey Canada. Consumer demand for butterfat has led to changes in component pricing, pushing more value onto butterfat, she added.
“Our herd average is five per cent fat and just under four per cent protein — 3.8 per cent protein is our national average — and what we’re finding is because Jerseys have a smaller body size, they produce more kilos of butterfat per kilogram of body weight,” she said. “So, overall, the appeal is in the efficiency aspect… less feed, less water, smaller housing, and there is less manure to deal with while still filling the same amount of butterfat quota.”
Quota system slows change
Currently, only four per cent of the Canadian dairy herd is composed of Jerseys — 93 per cent is composed of Holsteins — but Roxburgh said that number is climbing.
“About five years ago we were at three per cent, so we are gaining market share, but slowly, or slower than you might think,” she said. “And that is because with the quota system there is only a finite number of cows… to gain a Jersey you have to take a Holstein out.”
Despite that, between 2015 and 2016 the number of Jersey calves registered increased by nine per cent, and between 2000 and 2015 the number of registrations in Canada increased more than 50 per cent.
In most cases Jerseys are brought into herds through attrition — a Holstein leaves and a Jersey is brought in to take its place. But given that Jerseys calve younger than the most common breed, Roxburgh said it doesn’t take long for Jerseys to gain strength in numbers.
However, those looking to purchase even one Jersey may have difficulty sourcing it as demand continues to climb.
“What we’re finding is that demand far outweighs supply,” Roxburgh said. “With new entrants, people who are starting a new enterprise, who have just got their quota and are ready to go, they are looking for a whole herd of Jerseys, they have been going to the States… buying up a whole herd and then importing it into Canada.”
Smith said he could have sold his herd several times over based on the number of calls he’s got from producers looking for Jerseys. But it’s not just the excellent butterfat ratio that is drawing interest — easy calving and a unique personality also help sell the breed.
“They are very curious, very friendly, some people find them almost annoyingly friendly, to be honest, but the interesting thing about that curiosity, the inquisitiveness, is they are working very well in the robot barns… the Jersey breed, they just love robots, those cows just adapt to them extremely well,” said Smith, who has worked exclusively with Jersey cattle since taking over the family farm in the 1980s.
“My parents had started this herd back in the early 1960s, so it was always a purebred Jersey herd, and when I started farming… there was no question for me that I was just going to keep milking Jerseys and I mean that’s what breeders do, they love their cows and so that was the breed I loved and we loved working with them — that’s why we’re still loving what we do,” he said.
This article originally appeared in the May 25, 2017 issue of the Manitoba Co-operator.