I recall a session at an ACS conference I attended years ago; the topic was comparisons of dairy cow breeds. Back then the membership was so low that you did not have to choose between multiple concomitant sessions; there were not enough of us to break out into groups. There were several dairy farmers in the room that afternoon and like most others along the cheese trail, there were strong opinions among them. The discussion quickly narrowed down to weighing Jersey versus Holstein: which breed had the best milk (as though there were no other dairy cow breeds). One side of the room was pro-Jersey and the other was pro-Holstein.
If you are going on looks alone you might prefer the Jersey girls; they are sooo cute! [Thanks Redjar for the photo.] They remind me of deer: with their beautiful brown coats and seductive eyes. Most of them are not terribly large animals either, making them a little less frightening compared to some other bovine breeds. Not to take anything away from the Holstein girls; they’re attractive too (though they remind me of oversized Dalmatians with the indifferent personalities of cats).
Past the looks and personalities, it comes down to the milk, both the quality and the amount produced. The average Holstein produces more milk than the average Jersey but comparing the two breeds on the volume of milk each produces is only part of it. Cheese yields are determined by protein and fat content, which is only a fraction of the milk itself. Cow milk is about 87% water, on average, and looking at the solids from which the cheese is produced, you should expect that Jersey milk is only about 85% water. More solids in Jersey milk means that you get greater cheese yields. This makes the calculations a little more complicated.
Besides the percentages of solids, there are other qualities to be considered: are the flavors different, and if so, which breed’s milk is ‘better’? Assuming that you had one Jersey alongside one Holstein, and all else is equal including their aliments, would the organoleptic profiles of the milks be all that different?
From what I hear, the breed is secondary in determining aroma/flavor, after the feed. No doubt, there would be nuances distinguishing the Jersey milk from the Holstein. After converting the milks into cheeses, those breed influences play a diminishing role.
So long as a breed is suited for the terroir where it is situated (with differing climates, topography, etc.) then the dairy farmer is concerned about the economics. The margins in dairying are tight so any little yield advantage one breed has over another will make that breed the choice. We have witnessed gradual transitions to dairy breeds based on economics; this is difficult to counter. However I do have concerns. As mentioned above, dairy farmers have strong opinions on breeds. At the end of the day, it is business, but those subtleties in milks of different breeds are worth celebrating. In a time when standardization of foodstuffs tends to limit our food choices, there remains a wide diversity among cheese styles, even with the increasing use of commercial starter cultures, rennets, and secondary cultures. Surely a part of that prevailing diversity can be credited to differences among breeds.
It is less about which breed is better; it is simply nice to know that we have more than one of them.