The best dairy breed: A comparative study

In her informal study, Jane Holliday investigates the differences between Holsteins and Jerseys.

The best dairy breed: A comparative study
Dairy consultant Jane Holliday found that Sarsgrove’s Jersey cows were more efficient at milk solids production than the Holsteins.
Photo: Courtesy of Jane Holliday/Intelact
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Which is the best dairy breed? This question has caused much debate and long occupied dairy farmers the world over. An informal study comparing Holstein and Jersey cows conducted by Jane Holliday gives us something to think about.

There are not many individual commercial dairy operations in South Africa that run separate Jersey and Holstein herds on the same farm. Dairy farmers tend to favour a certain breed and type although many dairies now milk crossbred herds. Thus determining the best dairy breed would be next to impossible.

However, when Jane Holliday, a consultant with multinational dairy consultancy, Intelact, came across separate Holstein and Jersey herds on the same KwaZulu-Natal dairy farm, she jumped at the opportunity to compare the production of the two breeds.

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“We dairy consultants are often asked the question ‘what is the most profitable cow type?’,” Jane says. “A number of low-cost producers feel that a smaller cow is more profitable.”

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Jane has worked with the AfiFarm management system since 2008. Eternal Flame Investments (EFI), owner of Sarsgrove Dairy near Mooi River, runs separate Jersey and Holstein herds and uses the AfiFarm system. As Sarsgrove’s consultant, Jane has been able to monitor and compare each herd’s feeding regime and milk production and make meaningful deductions.

“I’ve looked at aspects such as days in milk, lactations, milk production, cow weight and days pregnant, all of which are used by AfiFarm to calculate ration composition and quantity fed,” says Jane.

“The aim is to get a dairy cow to the optimal body condition for the stage that she is in. For example, a cow will lose body condition after calving and the aim is to bring her back to her pre-calving condition by the time she is dried off.”

Jane Holliday

Sarsgrove is a year-round herd with 1 200 cows in milk, a third of which are Jerseys and the remainder Holsteins. The two herds are run separately on different sections of Sarsgrove, under one manager.

Cows are grazed off a platform of 249ha of irrigated perennial ryegrass. Jane believes that production and nutritional differences between the pastures are negligible, providing an opportunity for comparison of the breeds.


Sarsgrove Dairy operates an automated in-parlour feeding system. Each milking cow is given a specific ration formulation depending on a calculation computed by the software for her ideal weight at any given time. Cows are identified and ‘logged on’ by the system as they enter the parlour. Recognition is enabled through a pedometer worn above the hoof.

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“Every day the AfiFarm system automatically weighs each cow and records her milk production and then uses these figures to calculate her required in-parlour ration,” explains Jane.

Using Red Sky farm performance analysis software, for a year ending February 2013, Jane found that the Sarsgrove dairy herd yielded an average of 2 542kg/ha of milk solids.

“At Sarsgrove, we use a combination of AfiFarm and Red Sky software to give us the most accurate picture possible of dairy herd performance and profitability. AfiFarm measures milk production in real time, and Red Sky incorporates actual litres of milk sold into its retrospective financial analysis of the business. Getting these different figures is important because Jerseys typically don’t produce as many litres of milk as Holsteins do but usually produce more milk solids than the Holsteins,” explains Jane.

The average 2 542kg milk solids/ha was achieved from 13,5t dry matter (DM)/ha of utilised pasture, in addition to silage and concentrates fed in-parlour. For the calendar year ended February 2013, the milking herd achieved an average of 105,2% milk solids from weight. This is calculated by comparing the kilograms of milk solids/kg bodyweight of a dairy cow, and is an indicator of a cow’s feed-to-milk efficiency. In New Zealand, an 80% milk solids from weight figure during a lactation is considered good.

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For the same year, the Sarsgrove herd yielded an average of 35 458l/ milking ha. This was off a diet of 2,7t  DM/ ha of pasture grass, 2,1t of concentrates and 1t of forage per annum.

“This shows that Sarsgrove has a high- performance herd across both Jersey and Holstein breeds. The business uses American dairy genetics that are known for high production but tend to have poorer fertility, whereas the New Zealand dairy industry has taken great care to breed fertility back into its genetic base,” Jane points out.

Study questions

The Jersey breed, one of the oldest dairy breeds, has been pure for six centuries. Jersey cows are known for their adaptability, tolerance to heat and the ability to produce more milk per kilogram bodyweight with a higher butterfat content than any other breed.

Jerseys are also known for their docile, easy temperaments. In order to see whether the Sarsgrove Jerseys were more efficient than the Holsteins, Jane needed to focus on five key issues:

  • Did Sarsgrove’s Jerseys produce more milk/kg bodyweight than the Holsteins?
  • Was their production more consistent during the hotter months?
  • Did the Jerseys produce more kilograms of milk solids per kilogram bodyweight than the Holsteins?
  • How did grams of concentrate fed per litre produced compare between the two breeds?
  • Were the Jerseys more fertile than the Holsteins at Sarsgrove?

As part of her study, Jane researched production and efficiency differences between Sarsgrove’s early-maturing Jersey cows and
later-maturing Holstein cows. The smaller-framed Jerseys mature earlier. Jane found that, over a 305-day lactation, first-lactation Jerseys milked 90% of the production of second-lactation Jerseys, and 85% of third-and-over-lactation Jerseys.

Over an average 305-day lactation, first-lactation Holsteins milked 85% of the average production of second-lactation Holsteins, and 78% of the third-and-over-lactation Holsteins.

“It seems that Sarsgrove’s first-lactation Jerseys are closer to mature Jersey cow production than first-lactation Holsteins are to their mature cow production figures,” says Jane. This means that the Holsteins cost more in feed to get them to maximum milk production.

“Larger-framed and later-maturing Holsteins have to eat more to reach full growth and maximum milk production.”

Jane also found that over the 305-day lactation, Sarsgrove’s first-lactation Jersey cows weighed 92% of the second-lactation Jerseys’ bodyweight, and 86% of the third-and-over-lactation Jerseys.

First-lactation Holsteins also weighed 92% of the second-lactation Holsteins’ bodyweight, and 83% of the third-and-over lactation Holsteins’ bodyweight.

Sarsgrove’s rotary milking system. Sarsgrove uses only high- performance American genetics in its Jersey and Holstein herds.

“It was interesting to see how similar the relative bodyweights were, given that the Sarsgrove Jerseys have smaller differences between their average first and third-and-over-lactation milk production than the Sarsgrove Holsteins,” she says.

“But I’m not sure what meaningful conclusion can be drawn from these figures. They could indicate that Sarsgrove Jerseys are more efficient feed-to-milk producers than Sarsgrove Holsteins.”

Jane then compared milk as an average percentage of bodyweight figures. Figures were generated between October 2012 and September 2013. She stresses that these figures were milk as it was sold to a milk buyer, not fat-corrected milk.

To allow for more balanced comparisons, milk is fat- corrected to 4% butterfat. Sarsgrove’s milk as a percentage of bodyweight figures showed that the Jersey herd averaged 5,3% and the Holstein herd 5,2%.

Looking at Sarsgrove’s average milk solids/kg bodyweight, Jane found that Jerseys averaged 1,5kg milk solids/kg bodyweight/year compared with the Holstein average of 1,2kg milk solids/kg bodyweight/year.

“The milk solids comparison between the two breeds at Sarsgrove makes it clear that the Jerseys produce more solids, more efficiently, than the Holsteins. However, comparing the average milk production as a percentage of bodyweight between the two breeds at Sarsgrove shows there’s little difference,” Jane explains.

A comparison between the amount of concentrates eaten by the Jersey cows and the amount eaten by the Holsteins during the study period showed that the Jerseys consumed an average of 5,6kg/cow/day and the Holsteins an average of 7,4kg/cow/day.

However, data showed that Sarsgrove’s Jerseys consumed an average of 272g concentrates/l of milk produced against the 258g/l of milk produced by the Holsteins, indicating that in terms of feed costs/l the Jerseys were more expensive.

“When I plan the concentrate ration for the Sarsgrove milking herd, I factor in more feed for the Jerseys per litre of milk produced because of the higher protein and butterfat content. Jerseys need more nutrients to produce those milk solids.”

To generate a fair comparison between the breeds, taking this last factor into account, Jane calculated the average grams of concentrate fed to the Jerseys and to the Holsteins during the period to produce 1kg of milk solids.

In this case, the Jerseys averaged 3,47kg of concentrate/kg milk solids, while the Holsteins averaged 3,92kg of concentrate/kg milk solids produced.

“Sarsgrove’s Jerseys are more cost-efficient at producing milk solids than they are in total milk production, while its Holsteins are the opposite,” says Jane.

Adaptability to temperature

Comparing heat stress responses at Sarsgrove, Jane found that during the warmer months of the year, in spring and summer, both breeds showed a drop in total milk production. The Holsteins dropped by 5,76l/cow/month and the Jerseys by 5,35l/cow/month.

While making the point that this was not a scientific comparison, Jane feels there is no evidence that heat stress in the milder climate of the Mooi River area of the KZN Midlands should be a factor to consider when deciding on whether to dairy with Jerseys or Holsteins in that area. However, this may be different in hotter areas of the country.

Fertility and milk

Jane also found that there was almost no difference between the fertility of the two herds. With a voluntary waiting period of 50 days, 92% of the Jerseys were cycling by 60 days, 89% of the Holsteins cycled in the same period. In both breeds 91% were ready for first AI in 80 days. The Jerseys showed a 100-day in-calf rate of 52%, whereas the figure for the Holsteins was 53%.

“It must be remembered that Sarsgrove uses American genetics in both herds and it might be argued that this plays a significant role in the similar fertility statistics between the two breeds,” she says.

Using her analysis to answer her original questions, Jane found that generally Sarsgrove’s Jerseys produced no more milk per kilogram bodyweight than the Holsteins.

Under the farm’s climatic conditions, the Jerseys did not show any particular improved tolerance to heat stress and did not have better fertility. Sarsgrove’s Jerseys, produced more milk solids and l/kg milk/kg bodyweight than the Holsteins. However, the Jerseys consumed more concentrate/l milk produced than the Holsteins, while the Jerseys consumed less concentrate/kg of milk solids produced than the Holsteins did.

Finally, Jane found that Sarsgrove’s Jerseys had more docile temperaments than the Holsteins.

“Personally, I feel that under Sarsgrove’s production conditions, there were very few significant differences between the two breeds or any material reason to say that one breed was better than the other. Perhaps the most noticeable difference was that the Sarsgrove Jerseys showed themselves to be more efficient feed-converters than the Sarsgrove Holsteins.”

Phone Jane Holliday on 082 920 3593 or email [email protected].

This article was originally published in the 28 February 2014 issue of Farmers Weekly.