In dairy circles, Guernsey cows have long been overshadowed by their heftier, black-and-white cousins.
The reddish-colored breed originally from Guernsey, in the British Channel Islands, has been decimated in recent decades, purged from farms to make room for higher milk-yielding Holsteins, according to South Australian dairy farmer Lyndon Cleggett. His family began breeding pedigree Guernseys in 1964 and is one of about 100 members of the Guernsey Cattle Society of Australia.
Now, Guernsey cattle are enjoying a mini revival, thanks to the popularity of their milk. Golden-colored, it typically lacks a type of protein prevalent in regular milk that some researchers have connected to a raft of chronic illnesses. While scientific proof of the link remains contested, Guernsey cattle breeders in Australia are seeing unexpected interest from dairy farmers as far away as Japan and Thailand.
“I can’t keep up,” said Cleggett, who runs the “Brookleigh” herd of about 330 milkers at Glencoe, about 430 kilometers (267 miles) southeast of Adelaide. “We’ve got back up to the Holstein prices, whereas years ago we were always well under.”
Eight-month-old Guernsey heifers now fetch about A$1,400 ($998), from as little as A$700 a decade ago, while membership of the Guernsey society has stabilized after sliding for years, he said.
Guernseys first became popular on English dairy farms in the late 18th century, according to the World Guernsey Cattle Federation, which counts about 40,000 cows among the breed’s global ranks. That pales in comparison to the 1 million-plus Holsteins in Australia alone.
The renewed interest in Guernsey cows stems from the breed’s renowned docile nature as well as the purported merits of its milk. About 90 percent of Australian Guernseys carry a gene causing them to produce milk containing only the A2 type of beta-casein protein, said Cleggett, a former president of the Australian Guernsey society. Guernseys possess the highest percentage of A2 among traditional dairy cattle breeds, the American Guernsey Association says on its website.
In contrast, Holsteins, which originated from the Netherlands and northern Germany, typically produce a combination of A2 and A1 milk proteins, which scientists such as Keith Woodford, an agri-food professor at New Zealand’s Lincoln University, say may contribute to conditions from heart disease and diabetes to digestive discomfort.
“We have lots of people who ring up wanting house cows simply because of the A2 qualities, and we can’t meet demand for that,” said Lyndon’s wife, Joyce, who is also the secretary of the Australian Guernsey society. “We’ve heard of a few people who can’t drink regular milk, but they can drink Guernsey milk without any problems.”
There are about 1,300 cows registered with the society in Australia, according to the Cleggetts. Female registrations, which ratify a heifer’s purebred status, reached 546 last year, up from 499 in 2010, according to Livestock and Business Centre Ltd., which provides registration and administration services to animal breed societies in Australia.
Holstein Australia registers about 40,000 a year, according to the breed society’s latest annual report.