Guernsey Island is one of seven islands forming the Bailiwick of Guernsey. These Channel Islands lie in the English Channel just off the coast of France and come under British crown dependency. Guernsey is the smallest of the Islands. In the same area is the Jersey Bailiwick and Jersey Island. Both islands have developed dairy cows which share a common ancestry. They are also related to cattle found on the Normandy and Brittany coasts.
The Guernsey is often known as the 'golden Guernsey'. Although there are several differing views as to its history, it seems to be a mix of two French breeds taken to the island by a contingent of monks around 960AD. Robert, Duke of Normandy, dispatched the monks to help the locals on Guernsey defend the island from pirates. The breeds were Norman Brindles or Alderneys from Isigny and Froments du Leon from Brittany.
The Guernsey has inherited its coat colour from the Froment du Leon. The milk from these cows was high in butterfat but they were small and inconsistent in type. The Normandy Brindle was larger, a heavy producer and had forward- and inward-curving horns similar to the Guernsey.
The first description of island cattle appears in 'The Complete Book of Husbandry' written in 1756. There, they are described as 'very like Dutch Cattle'. At the time, the island cattle were a range of colours. The introduction of new blood from Holland and Flanders undoubtedly increased the size of these cattle. They were often called 'Alderneys' and, until the end of the Napoleonic wars, were exported in large numbers into England. They were popular because, being small, they were reasonably cheap. As their reputation as producers of rich milk increased, statutes were introduced in Jersey (1789) and Guernsey (1819) outlawing imports from France. This was to protect trade with England as the French cattle being imported were almost identical in appearance but much inferior in performance.
A register was published in 1878 and the 'General Herd Book' in 1881. The same year, the Royal Guernsey Agricultural and Horticultural Society published its own Herd Book Volume 1. While both books continued for some years, the Royal Guernsey Agricultural and Horticultural Society Herd Book eventually gained greater recognition both on Guernsey itself and in the US.
The Guernsey carries the beta casein A2 allele (a variant form of gene) and the bovine haemoglobin B allele. African and Asian cattle also carries these allele which suggests that the Guernsey may have come from the Middle East, perhaps via North Africa, Spain then into France. Cheese production is assisted by beta casein A2.
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Around 1877, Guernsey attempted to protect its cattle from several contagious diseases including Contagious Bovine Pleuropneumonia and Tuberculosis by restricting imports from England.
The accepted 'red or fawn and white' colour became the show standard in 1883 as the Guernsey breed became more firmly established. Guernsey milk has high levels of both butterfat and protein. The beta carotene content gives the milk its unique 'golden' colour. The breed has an international reputation as a highly efficient milk producer.
The Guernsey requires less feed than the larger Holstein. Cows weigh between 450 and 500 kg and bulls 600 to 700kg which is quite light by domestic cattle standards. While all bulls should be treated with great respect, the Guernsey bull can be unpredictable and aggressive. The Guernsey is long-lived, early maturing and docile in nature. The average culling age for cows is six years or more.
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Because of the high protein/butterfat content of the milk, greater quantities of processed products (butter and cheese) can be manufactured. The Guernsey also has higher percentages of calcium, vitamin A and vitamin D. The protein/butterfat conversion rate per unit of feed is also better in the Guernsey.
The breed adapts well to hot or cold climates. She also adapts to differing husbandry methods. The temperament of the breed is suited to intensive grazing and good production levels are maintained under most situations. Heifers can calve safely at two years of age. The birth weight of calves is between 40 and 50kg. Cows have remarkably few calving difficulties even when mated with heavier breeds. This factor makes them popular in beef herds. When crossed with native cattle in tropical countries, the progeny will produce up to four times the volume of milk of the cattle endemic to the region.
The Guernsey found its way to America around 1840. Three Alderney cows arrived in New York followed shortly by a bull and two heifers. These formed the beginnings of the Guernsey breed in America. In 1877, the American Guernsey Cattle Club was established and has a registration of over three million Guernseys. The American Guernsey Association also continues to promote and register Guernseys. A round of state fairs and national shows in the US during summer and autumn attracts enthusiasts from all over the country. This 'Tanbark Trail' culminates with a national winner being declared at the finish of the season.
The Guernsey is now found in dairy herds throughout the world. While the Holstein often makes up the bulk of a dairy herd, there may be a number of Guernseys boosting the butterfat and protein content of the overall production.