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New Holstein UK chairman shares his views on the dairy industry and looks ahead

Holstein UK elected Michael Smale as its new chairman in July this year.


Rebecca Jordan visited him at his farm in Cornwall to find out about his views on the dairy industry and share some of his ideas.

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As a medium-sized family farm, Michael Smale says his business faces the same pressures as many dairy farmers across the UK.


And he is keen to use his new position of chairman of Holstein UK to bring the ‘view of the ordinary farmer’ to the society.


He says: “My aim is to help and support Holstein UK to be relevant to the modern dairy industry and deliver services that are easy to use on-farm."


Mr Smale, who milks 150 Holsteins under the Glebewin prefix at South Hellescott Farm on the outskirts of North Petherwin near Launceston, Cornwall alongside his wife Caroline and daughter Gemma Smale-Rowland, highlights the usefulness of two services in particular; genomic testing and classification.


He believes these tools can improve breed type, productivity, health and resistance for both dairy farmers and the livestock industry as a whole.


He explains: “Through genomic testing we can now unravel a cow’s DNA and actually assess its potential in that animal’s environment.”


He adds that when that information is used in conjunction with classification it gives every farmer the ability to breed cows which last longer through better type scores and hence have higher life-time yield.


“At the same time members can go onto Holstein UK’s website and use all the available data to work out which bull is best suited to their milk production system and the objectives of their breeding policy.


“Genomic analysis enables us to, affordably, discover the genetic merit of calves at birth and use this information to make earlier and more accurate breeding decisions. Substantial costs, which vary from farm to farm, are incurred to rear a dairy heifer to milking age, so identifying the best to suit your particular farming system has major cost-saving benefits.”


Mr Smale believes that genomics also have a huge potential in non-pedigree breeding. He says: “We must invest in breeding and keep taking breeding stock forward without diluting down our bloodlines too much with such a high genetic turnover.”

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Looking at his own herd Mr Smale says the focus now is on breeding dairy cows which suit the farm, something which he says he has not spent enough time doing in the past.


Mr Smale and his family, have however, used data to monitor animal health closely. “We have collected a lot of data through Cattle Information Service (CIS) to test a range of diseases in milk, blood and tissue. The result has been very positive herd improvement over the past 10 years.”


BVD tissue tagging has been particularly significant. This disease has pretty well been eradicated within the herd and, Mr Smale says, if he looks back over the past five years, stock is now healthier which has, in turn, improved growth rates and conception within the herd.


Johne’s disease has also been eradicated, and Mr Smale hopes that in the future, management tools will also go a long way to help identify cattle with resilience to bovine TB, mastitis and dermatitis.


He explains that Holstein UK’s science committee is currently gathering data on loin strength, rear teat length and height of front end, which is an indication of the strength of the cow to do its job and hence improve longevity.


The history of the Glebewin herd itself can be traced back to 1956 when Mr Smale’s father, Gordon, bought two in-calf heifers from Launceston market.


One was pedigree and the other ineligible for registration due to red tinge in its coat.


Ironically the pedigree cow did not breed but offspring from the other were graded up and there are now 900 of her descendants registered.


At the time Gordon, who went on to become Holstein UK president in 1988, would have hardly dared believe how respected the Glebewin herd would become within one generation of Smales. Recently 33 cows in the Glebewin herd were classified Excellent and 68 Very Good.


These results have been reflected in the show ring. This year Gelebwin MVP May, a second calver, took reserve breed champion at Royal Cornwall and Lavam Grey, also a second calver, was breed champion at Launceston.

Grandson Matthew Roland, 13, is the next generation with a taste for the show ring and is a regular feature at the top of the line at the calf shows.


Glebewin is a closed herd with an exceptional cow bought in occasionally on genetic merit. Originally Mr Smale farmed in partnership with his brother Graham but, in 1998, they went their separate ways with Graham establishing the Glebegray herd two miles away on a farm bought in 1974.


When the partnership split, Michael was milking 70 cows. Now 150 are milked in two hours through a 20:20 herringbone. The herd calves year round with the average cow achieving four lactations – although there are cows which have held their own and are still in the herd after their twelfth calf.


The herd is paddock grazed over the summer with kale strip grazed in August when grass growth slows down. They are housed from mid- to late-October until April 1.


Cows are fed in parlour with high yielders receiving supplementary diet out-of-parlour. The herd is fed at a rate of 0.24kg/litre using auto identification to feed to a peak of 45kg of milk/day.


The calving interval is just under 398 days with heifers calving at 25-months old. These are batch calved and wintered separately to ensure they achieve maximum mature weight without compromising yield.


About 101ha (250 acres) of grass is cut three or four times a year – weather dependent. The Smales stopped growing maize four years ago and now include wholecrop in the ration instead.


Mr Smale says: “Our ground is marginal and in bad years we could not produce a good enough crop of maize. We now grow up to 28ha (70 acres) of whole crop, which is two years’ of wheat followed by two years’ spring barley, and undersow the final year with a four-year grass ley.

Gemma, the only lady on NFU’s Dairy Board, has recently returned home to the business. Understandably Michael is very keen there is enough support for youngsters keen to milk cows now and in the future.


He says: “I would like to see more people coming into the industry and get support across the board.


“It worries me there are not enough young producers coming into the industry; cow numbers are starting to fall back. In fact, there was an 18 per cent drop in dairy birth registrations compared with five years ago.”


While he concedes figures suggest the number of producers milking the largest herds has not altered much; he says it is the smaller herds which are feeling the strain.


He says: “There is not a big enough return on what we produce – even though it is increasingly apparent consumers are prepared to pay more because, through their on-going support of farm shops and local labelling, they are showing a greater awareness of where their food comes from.


“One of the ironies is we have a government promoting how important it is to look after the environment. Land which has been in food production is coming out of farming and this country is not even self-sufficient; we are importing food from miles away and contributing to disasters like the Amazon forest burning.”


However, he adds that he does believe there is a future for the next generation if they are prepared to ‘stick in there’.


“Buying food from around the world is not sustainable. Which is more sustainable: this land here on this farm which has been producing food for centuries or burning acres of forests to clear ground to produce food which is then shipped around the world? This is not political expediency; it is not logical thinking.”

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