The decline of the Guernsey cow

Horace Camp reminiscences about the glory days of dairy farming – and considers how things could have been different.

I have a very long personal history with the Guernsey cow.

I have fed them, watered them, milked them, calved them, medicated them, showed them and been kicked and horned by them.

A Guernsey cow in heat even hospitalised me once. I have seen them born, I’ve seen them thrive, I’ve seen them die and I’ve eaten them.

The world would be a very sad place without pedigree Guernsey cows. When I was a boy there were hundreds of thousands of registered Guernseys in America alone. How proud my Dad was when the Guernsey was the second most popular dairy breed in the Western world and here on the island we were breeding the very best of them.

There was a time when champion Guernsey cows and bulls were worth more than the field they stood in.

Hell, the very finest were worth more than the entire farm they lived on. When even the finest of houses cost a few hundred pounds the best Guernseys were fetching thousands.

My Dad refused to sell his champion cow, Evandale Flower 2, possibly one of the finest Guernseys to ever live, but did sell her unborn calf for a thousand guineas.

They were the great days. Now, fewer than 10,000 pedigree Guernseys walk on this planet and a fifth of those live here. And what is the fastest-growing dairy breed today? You guessed it, the Jersey.

I’m not going to give you my version of why the Guernsey went from palace to gutter in a single generation but suffice to say there is probably more of a place for the small, water and food efficient Guernsey of my Dad’s day than there is for the second-rate, big, high-yielding Guernsey we have today. Still water and food efficient when compared to the black-and-whites but not as efficient as, I hate to say it, the Jersey, which has remained much more true to type and is just what the 21st century is looking for.

Back in the 1950s the Guernsey trounced the Jersey in the numbers stakes. Now we have a rare breed and the Jersey is thriving. Twelve thousand Jersey calves were registered last year in Canada alone. And the USA has more than 350,000 pedigree Jerseys, with millions of unregistered cows identifying as Jersey.

Still, the past is the past. Let us draw a line under it and focus on today. The Guernsey is now a heritage breed and we are its homeland. Even here we cannot make it commercial any more. Without state aid and the willingness of the public to pay over the odds for milk, the Guernsey cow would just wither away and die.

How the mighty have fallen.

The Guernsey that once put milk and cheese on the tables of the world is now a circus attraction in its own island. It keeps the fields nice and tidy and is always available as a background prop for Visit Guernsey. Our dozen or so farmers are now principally keepers and not entrepreneurs. Totally reliant on the goodwill of the people for their living and the survival of the breed.

On a balance of payment basis, the dairy industry, although it produces a unique and highly desirable product, exports very little but imports a lot in the form of grain and fertiliser. Rather than establish a unique and niche export product, we prefer to sell it as liquid milk, albeit at a premium price, on-island.

And what do we do with that fine product? We homogenise it. If you don’t know what that means then Google it. But what it does do is mean you will never see the cream rising to the top of the milk. And it is nothing like the raw milk I grew up on. In fact, though we pay premium prices most of us don’t want Guernsey milk. Seems we prefer milk more akin to the watery stuff Friesians pump out.

Our red milk is as close as you can get to real Guernsey milk but even then it has been cooked and emulsified before it gets to you. Raw milk, the real stuff, is frowned upon in Guernsey. The whole reason the States owns the Dairy and without compensation took away retail sales from the farmers was for health reasons.

Tuberculosis was rife in the population and in the national herd. Modern scientific reasons drove the dairy legislation and the banning of raw milk sales and the imposition of the States Dairy as the monopoly buyer of milk made sense back then. Nearly a century ago.

The result was an increase in the price of milk production, the loss by farmers of their direct sales and the inevitable, how can I put it nicely, cost creep of utilities run by the States. The States created a need for a publicly-owned milk processing plant, for that’s what it is, and the average farmer of the time with his five or so cows had to, by law, sell to the processing plant or give up.

Imagine now if we still had 400 farmers with five cows each, all of them TB-free and regularly tested, licensed to sell raw milk to the public. We would still have 2,000 cows. Our fields would still be maintained and probably more of the tiny ones would be used as well. I expect less grain would be fed and far more reliance placed on grazing. Yields may be lower and over time the hobby farmers might prefer the smaller Guernseys again, but our heritage would have been saved and far more of us could be farmers as well as finance workers.

But that’s just a pipe dream. The die is cast and we are where we are. A dozen farms with, for us, large herds but, for the UK, small-to-middling ones needing us to find £30m. or so to build a new milk processing plant. That’s only about £15,000 per cow capital cost. Sounds like a bargain.

And to be honest I’d rather see £30m. spent once every 30 years or so to preserve our heritage than it being spent on bailing Aurigny out. Even if it makes no rhyme, reason or commercial sense at all.

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