SPENCERVILLE — Not so long ago, the prevailing wisdom suggested that everyone loved cute Jersey cows, just not quite enough to give up their almighty Holsteins.
But things are changing. Some Ontario dairy farmers really are switching from the venerable black-and-whites to the doe-eyed alternative. Many more are sprinkling their Holstein herds with Jerseys to bring up their butterfat content.
The old stereotype about it taking more Jerseys than Holsteins to fill a farmer’s milk quota just doesn’t wash these days, according to farmers familiar with both breeds. For more than a decade, Ontario dairy farmers have been paid to fill their quota based on a mix of milk solids, not raw milk volume, and by that measure, the modern Jersey cow is about equivalent to her Holstein counterpart — and then some.
Ed Cooper, 30, can vouch for that.
“You’re still shipping the same kilos of quota per stall, whether it’s a Holstein or a Jersey, that’s what we’ve found in our barn,” says Cooper, a Grenville County milk producer who’s been overseeing the transition of his family’s 5-generation dairy farm with 50-head. They’re selling all of the Holsteins — about 12 more to go — for Jerseys.
“They’re both giving a kilo and a quarter each, of quota,” he said.
Cooper says that means the two dairy breeds are “roughly equal” in terms of payout at his farm, which he operates with his parents, Susan and Jim Cooper.
Jersey Ontario chair Theo Elshof explains that Jersey milk, with its higher fat content — around 5.5 % — more easily hits the optimum “solids-non-fat” (SNF) ratio used to calculate the milk cheques of Ontario dairy farmers. The compensation scheme is tightening up further in February to ensure producers hew even more closely to an SNF ratio of 2-to-1 — or milk with 2 parts of all solids to one part butterfat. The lower the ratio, the more difficult it becomes for Holstein cattle to comply because of that breed’s lower butterfat and higher protein, according to Elshof, a Berwick Jersey producer, southeast of Ottawa.
A lower SNF ratio helps dairy processors minimize excess production of skim milk powder, the problematic byproduct of meeting high consumer demand for butter in Canada. According to Elshof, the overseers of the supply management system believe an SNF of 1.7-to-1 would eliminate the surplus skim milk issue. In theory, he adds, this could only be achieved by switching every herd in the country to Jerseys — though nobody believes such a solution would ever be imposed.
Great strides in the Jersey breed’s overall milk output have also contributed to the breed’s gross revenue parity with Holsteins, according to Bob Jarrell, whose family runs a dairy farm with both breeds near Belleville. “Thirty years ago, a top Jersey might give 50 pounds of milk a day. Today, that could be 100 to 150 pounds,” Jarrell observes.
Beyond the total dollars yielded per animal are the operational savings that make Jersey cows the net winner, according to the breed’s advocates.
Jerseys consume less feed and require less space, and “that’s where they really make a difference” to the bottom line, says Ed Cooper. “We’re needing 10 or 15 acres less alfalfa ground than we needed 10 years ago.”
Recalling when the herd was nearly 100 % Holstein, “I’ve gained 15 acres of soybeans to take to the elevator and did nothing except change the cows,” he says.
Burritts Rapids producer Steve Linton also made the switch and says his 95-head Jersey herd also saves him money on veterinary bills, breeding costs and feed costs. Jerseys are also lauded for their easy-to-handle character. Moving a cow on a halter or trimming her hooves is simply more of a pleasure and less of a chore.
“They’re smaller and move much more easily, especially in our old barn. If I have a calving Jersey that’s stuck or something, I can roll her over myself, I don’t need to find Dad and Mom to help as if it were a 1,600 lb Holstein, which is very nice,” Ed Cooper says.
So, what’s stopping other farmers from switching? Some say, as the saying goes, you can’t turn an aircraft carrier on a dime. Others argue, a confirmation bias comes with the Holstein’s huge popularity.
But also, according to Holstein dairy farmer Chris Nooyen, you don’t need to switch if you breed more Jersey-like attributes into your Holsteins. Nooyen has found success with that approach at his farm’s main production location, east of Ottawa, where two-thirds of the 320-head Holstein milking herd have been bred with a high-butterfat trait. The combined herd today stands at 4.8 % butterfat and — right on target — an SNF of 1.9-to-1. Nooyen estimates that those high-butterfat Holsteins are producing 5.2 % butterfat.
He agrees that a Jersey and a standard Holstein do yield the same quota income, on a per-stall basis. Just don’t count out the market-dominant Holstein because, according to Nooyen, the breed’s deeper genetic pool means it can be rapidly developed for a much higher butterfat content than the current average of 4 % — as demonstrated at his own farm.
Ironically, he concedes that his breeding program does strive to make the ultimate Holstein just a little more like a Jersey overall. “If I could make the Holstein into a smaller, more compact cow that’s more efficient, and the payout period is shorter, I’m happy,” Nooyen says.
He also milks 25 Jerseys at another location and appreciates the “fastest growing breed in North America.” But Nooyen, also a regional rep with ABS genetics, points out that Jersey improvement takes longer because it’s harder to find bulls to further ramp up butterfat production in the breed. Also a negative on the Jersey side is the lesser value of Jersey-beef crossbreeds, when compared to the Holstein-beef equivalent. And that beef revenue “can be significant” for the majority of dairy farmers now using beef-bull semen to breed their lower-producing Holstein cows, he says.
A Holstein farmer wanting to immediately switch over to Jerseys would find it a challenge to find a suitable number of animals in the Canadian marketplace and would have to go looking in the U.S. “They would have to take what they could get,” he says. The very best top-flight Jerseys are also fetching up to six-figures, he points out.
Meantime, some Holstein farmers are able to increase fat-content by feeding palm fat, a practice frowned upon because of negative public perception.
About 4.5 per cent of dairy herds in Canada had at least one Jersey in 2000, according to Jersey Canada, rising to 14.3 per cent in 2018. In 2019, Jersey Canada registered more than 11,800 animals, the highest since 2019.
Jerseys are the second most popular dairy breed in Canada, according to Holstein Canada, but still only 4 % of the national dairy herd.