By Connor Lynch
When you think of a cow, let alone a dairy cow, you’re likely thinking of a Holstein. The towering black and whites are the iconic image and with good reason. In Ontario there are far more of them. There are more than 300,000 Holsteins and fewer than 12,000 Jerseys. Holsteins represent 90 per cent of Ontario’s milking cows.
Described as loyal dogs or like terrible two-year-olds, Jerseys are slowly growing in popularity. In 2000, about 4.5 per cent of dairy herds in Canada had at least one Jersey, according to Jersey Canada. By 2018, that jumped to 14.3 per cent.
Ask a Holstein farmer and many will tell you they haven’t even looked into milking the smaller Jerseys. Even though, when pressed, they’ll tell you any number of wonderful things about them, from their superior hooves and fantastic legs to their efficiency on feed.
A 2014 study by professor Elliott Currie, commissioned by Jersey Canada, ranked Jerseys as the most cost-efficient milking cow, offering a seemingly slam-dunk reason to milk Jerseys. Based on a head-to-head comparison on 90 kilos of quota, Jerseys beat Holsteins to the tune of $20,000 a year in net operating income. The 116-head Jersey herd net about $160,000 per year to the 103-head Holstein herd’s $140,000.
The study concluded: “The Jersey breed is the most economical and financially viable dairy breed. The smaller size is a benefit due to efficient conversion of feed, lower labour costs, higher components, lower health and reproduction costs and lower investment in fixed assets.”
Dairy expert and dairy farmer consultant Jack Rodenburg, however, questioned many of the study’s assumptions. It assumes lower labour costs: Likely a bad assumption, as it takes more Jerseys to fill the same quota, which means more work to milk them, said Rodenburg. Superior income from Holstein bull calves and cull cows isn’t even mentioned. Assumptions on smaller barn investments are overly generous.
But Jerseys are certainly getting noticed. In the last five of six years, the annual Royal Agricultural Winter Fair crowned a Jersey as Supreme Dairy Champion.
The million dollar question for a dairy farmer is this: Which cow will make the most money?
“For our situation, where we are housing cows, and (in an) intensive production system, the Holstein has proven itself to be the best cow,” said Rodenburg. Holsteins may cost more because they eat so much and have more health and pregnancy issues than Jerseys, but the high-producing Holsteins fill quota faster than any other dairy breed and Holstein dairy farmers make better money on the protein and other milk components to boot. Rodenburg added that if milk component payments better reflected market demand, Jerseys could be the better choice (see sidebar on A11).
According to 2018 stats from CanWest DHI, your average Holstein will give you about 420 kilos of butterfat per lactation and about 320 kilos of protein. Jerseys, on average, produce 350 kilos of butterfat and 280 kilos of protein.
Even if you wanted to switch to the smaller, easier breed, it isn’t easy, fast or cheap. Once you’re on the Holstein treadmill, it can be hard to get off. You’ll likely need to refit your barn or build a new one, sell the herd and buy up new cows. All that work can seem both daunting and unnecessary. Sometimes it’s the barn you have that dictates the breed you should milk. Many farms have old barns that are much better suited to Jerseys. Modern understanding of cow comfort, said Rodenburg, has shown that many old freestall barns are too small for modern Holsteins, but a nice fit for Jerseys, letting a farmer get much more life out of that barn. You can also milk Jerseys on less land, since they’re more efficient on feed, and you can plan on easier calving’s and pregnancies.
Holsteins and Jerseys both have a long history in Ontario. Holsteins were on the scene by the 19th century, and Jerseys weren’t far behind. Early component pricing paid a reasonable premium for butterfat, said Rodenburg. But multiple component pricing, introduced in the 1990s, favoured the lower-fat milk of Holsteins.
Other factors favoured the Holstein. Jersey expert Russell Gammon, formerly with Semex, said Jerseys’ heyday was in the 1960s, but multiple component pricing was the beginning of the end. Dutch immigrants arriving in Canada after the Second World War were Holstein experts, providing both advice for established farmers and creating more demand for the breed. Meantime, the Jerseys’ popularity in South America, because of their heat tolerance, saw some of the best genetics in Canada get snapped up by foreign buyers.
The BSE outbreak in 2003 turned things around, said Gammon. Canadian producers no longer had to compete with deep-pocketed international buyers and foundational genetics for the Jersey breed spread across Canada. That’s when former Holstein farmer Robin Smith, of Iroquois, began his switch to Jerseys.
He bought the largest Jersey he could find — a 42-litre-a-day cow from Benji Faulkner, who runs the massive London Dairy Farm. The slow switch-over to Jerseys is still in the works 16 years later. He cleared out one of the last of his Holsteins last month, including a “perfect cow,” a 15-year-old who’s simply run her course, he said.
Smith, who operates in a former tie-stall barn on 200 acres, found that all the good things they say about Jerseys are true: They’re docile, easy on his pocketbook and easy to work with. They save him a bundle on feed, because they eat less and produce more fat than Holsteins. They also play nice with his robots.
“The proof is in the pudding,” Smith said. Some farmers have kept up with improved Holstein genetics that means more butterfat, but on average they’re still no match for the Jersey. “More and more guys are coming around to the Jerseys,” Smith said. He’s heard of a farm in Alberta that sold the Holstein herd and bought Jerseys outright.
Smith says the best way to switch is gradually and you don’t have to narrow the stalls. Just move the brisket board to shorten the stall so that the cows are using the alley. He said he began to see the difference (less feed cost and more fat production) after swapping 15 Holsteins for Jerseys.
Smaller farms that could benefit from going Jersey can find it hard to give up a brand. “The guy who drives a Ford, doesn’t want to drive a GM truck,” Smith said.
He sees Holstein advantages in his own barn. Finding Holsteins is easier. At the same time, “No one wants to get rid of their really good Holsteins until you have to.”
Holsteins have another advantage: There’s more of them. That makes breeding easier, both in terms of sourcing animals and in making faster genetic improvements. History and familiarity have also favoured the Holstein in a world that believes bigger is better.
Roslin-area dairy farmer Jim Huizenga, north of Belleville, knows both breeds. He has a half-and-half herd of Holsteins and Jerseys, and his favourite cow is a half and half herself. “If you go out in the paddock with her, she’s in your hip pocket.”
He grew on a dairy farm, eventually starting his own beef operation before getting into dairy again. Lots of his neighbours milked Jerseys. “They’ve all had proven success with Jerseys. I thought if I wanted to be on the winning team, that was the way to go.”
Getting started in dairy farming, Jerseys were a good fit, with their greater efficiency on feed. They tolerate lower-quality feed much better than Holsteins and Huizenga was still getting his feed up to speed. “Now that the feed is solid, stabilized at 19 per cent protein, (the Jerseys) shine like a new penny.”
He doesn’t badmouth his Holsteins. He likes his split and some of his Holsteins are “champion eaters and milkers.” Not all of his neighbours are so generous: One said he’s just as soon use the milk from his Holsteins to clean the milk line from a sick Jersey.
But if his Jerseys are so good, why buy Holsteins at all? He simply didn’t have the space in his barn for enough Jerseys to fill his quota.
Osgoode-area dairy farmer Steve Velthuis is a Holstein man. He conceded Jerseys have the edge on butterfat, and have plenty of good attributes. But switching is way too complicated and with the sheer volume of milk his 200 Holsteins crank out, he gets plenty of butterfat. His Holstein’s butterfat average is 4.42 per cent, well above Ontario’s average of 3.92 and close to the 5 per cent typical of Jerseys.
Besides, said Velthuis, breeding Holsteins is a big business and the breed is constantly being improved. Work is being done to improve their health and fertility, and butterfat production is improving. Jerseys might not have the advantage forever.
For many farmers, milking Jerseys is just something they don’t have to think about. Holstein farmer Jim Wert at Avonmore built a new barn back in 2005. He built it for Holsteins, and didn’t even look into Jerseys. He knows Holsteins and doesn’t see a need to switch breeds. “If it’s not broke, don’t fix it,” he said.
DFO board member and Mountain-area dairy farmer Nick Thurler, who milks about 480 Holsteins, has heard good things about Jerseys, but hasn’t looked into switching. “Why switch when you’ve got something going pretty good?”