The 2020 winner of the Holstein UK president’s medal, awarded to a future leader of the dairy industry, was Steven Harris. Rebecca Jordan went to meet him.
Young dairy farmer Steven Harris fundamentally believes there is great opportunity for British dairy farmers on the international stage in years to come.
However, to achieve this, Steven, who milks 200 Holsteins at Racecourse Farm, Bodmin, Cornwall, with his father Philip and mother Sandra, would like to see a concerted effort by milk buyers to invest into the industry, thereby demonstrating their confidence in and support of UK producers.
He says: “The quality of British milk is far superior to any alternative in terms of nutrition and health benefits. And it is such a versatile product.
“But to get that message across and sell our milk we, as farmers, need to be recognised by our buyers. With their help we can keep improving our standards, especially in animal welfare, which is the deciding factor when it comes to consumer choice.”
However, Steven also says it is important to be transparent about the realities of the dairy industry and gain consumer trust.
“This needs to be done sooner rather than later as we are almost certain to compete with cheap imports as the UK starts its journey into free trade.”
He adds that at the same time business efficiency is critical. In his essay submitted to Holstein UK when he was nominated by Cornwall Holstein Young Breeders for the 2020 President’s Medal, Steven wrote: “According to AHDB the top 25 per cent of dairy farms perform 1.8 times better than the bottom 25 per cent. The disparity in resulting profits, or lack of them, can make the difference in staying in business.
The essay was in answer to the question: ‘In light of the changes facing the UK dairy industry, what steps should be taken at farm level to adapt to these changes and boldly go forward?’
“There are obvious common traits among those top producers such as having clear aims, effective cost management, readiness to embrace new technology and ideas and, finally, care for the environment,” says Steven.
“When the whole industry adopts similar attitudes to those top-tier producers the UK dairy industry will be strong in the face of adverse change.”
For Steven his path to dairy farming was started by his father who began milking cows in 1992 on a county council farm. They moved to Racecourse in 2001.
Steven’s placement year while at Harper Adams with Wilfred Maddocks’ Wyndford Holsteins, at Chadwell Grange, Shropshire, sparked his interest in pedigree breeding and showing.
The Harris’ Racewood prefix was established in 2010 and there followed a string of show successes both locally and nationally with home-bred stock.
Steven says: “My time in Shropshire offered me a different view on management and how to manage a herd of cows – specifically the specialist care of higher yielding and show cows.
“I was elevated and inspired to the next level and very lucky to work under herd manager Ben Yates. In my view everyone who is hoping to take on the family farm should go away and spend time with a respected farming business to see their own business in a different light and to learn from the best.”
At home Steven now milks 200 cows. The herd has been gradually built up breeding its own replacements with emphasis on the Zandra, Adeen, Ambrosia, Erle, Jodie and Pammy family lines.
“Using these lines we have bred females which are very consistent and full of milk. Currently the herd is averaging 10,201 litres/year at 4.1 per cent butterfat and 3.25 per cent protein through a 20:20 Westfalia parlour which has been adapted, updated and reconfigured over the years and still has plenty of life left in it,” says Steven.
“I am happy with their performance because I feel we are maximising production in terms of the staff and land we have. I am comfortable with what we are doing and the business is stable.”
The milk contract is with Saputo, with production steady throughout the year due to year-round calving. The calving index stands at 385 days which, says Steven, is a very difficult compromise.
“If the interval is too short we suppress yield and the same outcome is true when you dry off a cow too quickly. It is a fine balancing act."
Those cows at the peak of their lactation are fed 6kg of a 16.5 per cent protein blend, 23kg both grass and maize silage and 6kg wholecrop. Lower yielders are offered 4kg of the same blend, 30kg grass silage, 12kg maize silage and 10kg wholecrop. Grass was ensiled four times last year, with the first cut taken in the first week of May.
Just 80 of the best cows are bred to pedigree sexed semen. The rest are bulled either by a Limousin bull or artificially inseminated to a British Blue or Aberdeen-Angus. Some of these calves are sold as stores; the rest finished between 24-26 months old.
“We have common grazing rights on Cardinham Common on Bodmin, so these cattle are finished extensively,” says Steven.
He adds that in order to ‘survive and succeed’ a correct cow is needed.
“She must be a survivor, avoid lameness, get back in-calf and produce milk.”
To achieve this Steven has concentrated on traits distracting from lameness such as breeding and carries out regular trimming (twice-a-year) and footbathing with formalin three times a week.
“Last summer we put in a footbath and it has made a real difference to the mobility of the herd,” adds Steven.
Looking to the future, Steven says he will always continue to improve and never be complacent because even the best business can improve its efficiency, environmental impact and milk yield.
He adds that labour will continue to be an issue.
“Any new technology we can adopt here which helps reduce labour input, such as heat detection and rumination collars, will be considered.”
In his President’s Medal essay Steven said the industry needed to address concerns about the environment and increasing interest in plant-based diets.
He says: “The industry already addresses this problem with initiatives such as the Dairy Roadmap, which sets out environmental targets for the industry. And action has already been taken around the reduction of greenhouse emissions from milk production.
“But it is vital farmers use their own social media platforms to highlight these results at the same time as reminding everyone milk is a superfood.
“As an industry we really are not vocal enough.”
Last year six young breeders were shortlisted for interview by the judging panel of Robert Clare (Holstein UK President), Ann Taylor (industry representative) and Andrew Axford (Semex).
The interviewees had already each submitted an essay entitled ‘In light of the changes facing the UK dairy industry what steps should be taken at farm level to adapt to these changes and boldly go forward?’
Judge Ann Taylor said at the time: “Steven Harris was extremely switched on and without a doubt he will definitely boldly go forward within his farming business at home and within the industry as a whole."
Heather Martin, Portaferry, Northern Ireland and Rob Higgins, Shropshire were runners-up.
As winner of the award Steven will have the opportunity to visit the Royal Agricultural Winter Fair in Toronto.