Friday, July 2, 2010

History of Jersey Cows in the Gulf Islands of BC

My favourite cow is the Jersey, a small, brown dairy cow known for their beautiful brown eyes, gentle disposition and colouring that looks like someone stood in front of her with black paint in hand and wind from behind. But they are especially known for the cream. Many people have memories of Jersey cream, home churned butter, rich ice cream, and whipped cream on graham crackers.
Historically their traits have been carefully protected – no imports of cattle were allowed to the Isle of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands between England and France. If cattle were brought to the island there were hefty fines, confiscation of boats, and the prompt slaughter of the offending animal. The traits were too precious to be lost to random cross breeding. As people with British roots moved to North America, so did the Jersey cows. Still, their bloodlines were carefully protected and tracked. Breeders all knew each other, either personally through correspondence or by reputation.
The Gulf Islands were world renowned for the quality and size of their Jersey herd. Robert Grubbe from Galiano Island brought the first Jerseys to the Gulf Islands in 1904 from Oregon. He contacted other farmers about buying some of the cows, and Albert Menzies of Pender Island bought two bred cows for $125 each. Menzies then imported from Wisconsin the son of the Champion bull at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. Washington Grimmer of Pender Island started a Jersey herd in 1906. He had bloodlines from Ontario, the US, and the Isle of Jersey. John Bellhouse bought the farm and Jersey herd of Grubbe, and as a fan of Dickens named his cows for characters from Dickens books. His daughter Winifred married Herbert A Spalding of South Pender, and they also had a Jersey herd. In just a few years, 20% of the BC Jersey herd was in the Gulf Islands. Other names like Bullock, Price, Smith, Gibson, Evans of Salt Spring, Dalziel of Denman, and Harris of Moresby Island all raised purebred Jerseys. Pedigrees were carefully tracked, with bloodlines stretching all the way back to the Isle of Jersey itself.
Besides excellent genetics and careful breeding programs, the Jersey cows were also well cared for. Feed was homegrown, with grains,forage crops and pasture. Cows were milked twice daily. They were brushed clean before each milking, and after grooming would have their udders washed clean. The milk was filtered and chilled in a milkhouse that had a cold running stream. Butter was produced on the farm and shipped to Victoria and Vancouver. After the Salt Spring Creamery was established (where Embe Bakery is now) the cream would be shipped by boat to Salt Spring. The regular visits by the Steamer Iroquois made export of all agricultural products easily achieved.
The Jersey cows of the Menzies and Grimmer herds set many production records that were recognized both provincially and nationally. Menzies' cow, Lilac of Pender, was the first Jersey in Canada to qualify for the ROP, or Record of Performance. She was champion Jersey female at the Victoria and New Westminster Fairs. His cow Buffs Lassie held ROP records, and was awarded the silver cup by BC Dairymen Association for her production. Grimmer had cows that held many production records as well.
The quality of the Gulf Island Jerseys was so exceptional that cows were taken by boat to Victoria and Vancouver for agricultural competitions. Washington Grimmer's sons, Neptune and Percy, travelled to the fairs with Albert Menzies' sons Victor and Morris. The cattle were walked from the docks to the fairgrounds. Many championships were won for the Gulf Island Jersey cattle over the years. The young men participated in judging competitions along with showing their cattle, and at the PNE Nep, Percy and Victor took 3 of 4 prizes offered for their judging skills.
The Jerseys from the Gulf Islands soon brought fame and fortune, and were sought out for breeding stock throughout North America. Professor MacLean from the University of British Columbia travelled throughout BC in 1917 looking for exceptional Jerseys to start a herd. He selected five cows – two from Pender Island. Grimmer's Lily's Forget-Me-Not was purchased for $500, and Menzies' Lady Jane Champion was purchased for $300, hefty sums for their day. Both cows established several production records for pounds of milk and butterfat. In 1922 Lady Jane Champion held the highest record for a mature Jersey in Canada, and a student judging trophy for all round excellence was named the Lady Jane Trophy. In 1931, fifty Jersey breeders came to Pender Island to visit the Grimmer and Menzies farms.
All things weren't easy, though. Transport by boat can be tricky. In 1927 a bull jumped off the Island Princess and swam ashore at Clam Bay. Returning from the PNE during a labour strike left cows and handlers stranded in Victoria until a boat could be dispatched to help everyone get home. The biggest setback was the consolidation of the dairy industry in Vancouver Island and the Fraser Valley, as processing facilities were modernized and enlarged. The smaller creameries, including the Salt Spring Creamery, closed down in the 1950's. Soon after the Jersey cows in the Gulf Islands were sold, and except for the occasional family cow, Jerseys disappeared from the Gulf Islands. But in 1998, two enterprising women revived the Gulf Island Jersey tradition by establishing Moonstruck Dairy on Salt Spring Island. To be continued.....

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