Recently elected Holstein UK president Bryan Thomas speaks to Debbie James about his views on genomics, retirement, the future for dairy farmers, and his own family farm.
Genomics can drive profitability in dairy herds, but while Bryan Thomas uses this tool, he does so only sparingly.
Bryan, whose decisions over the decades have helped shape the genetic make-up of the 250-cow Gelliddu Holstein herd, Cwmffrwd, Carmarthenshire, instead puts his faith in proven sires to achieve a balanced breeding ethos.
He says: “We are not in the genomics race. We believe in making genetic progress, so we use a certain percentage of genomics, but we are not drunk on it. We use genomics very sparingly because we have faith in proven bulls.”
Neither does Bryan claim to be a pioneer of breeding a cow type that produces high volumes of milk, as he is not prepared to sacrifice longevity.
He says: “We are making a margin from our cows, but we are not pursing yields to the point where animals are burning out within three years.”
As the new president of Holstein UK, his words might not sit well with all Holstein breeders, or for that matter bull semen companies.
He asks: “Have we perhaps been brainwashed by businesses with things to sell guiding us down a certain route?
“We must not lose sight of that fact that we need to breed the type of animal the commercial man wants.”
Bryan is happy to speak his mind; in fact he is known for his no-nonsense straight-talking approach.
He has served on the Holstein UK board three times and, after stepping down from his final term, was told he was missed in more ways than one.
“My wagging finger is missed at meetings,” he says.
Bryan farms with his wife Eirlys and their son and daughter-in-law, Gareth and Heather, at Gelliddu, Cwmffrwd, near Carmarthen.
He uses the term ‘farms’ loosely, as he admits to have ‘technically’ retired eight years ago when he stepped down from hands-on farming after the family upgraded the milking parlour to a 28:28 herringbone.
Bryan now takes responsibility for all the paperwork, but retiring from active farming was a big wrench and one he still struggles with.
He says: “Some of my contemporaries at school became QCs [Queen’s Counsel] and professors. In so many of those professions, people count the years until they retire, but while I might not have had the remuneration or the time off they enjoyed, I never for one second looked forward to retiring.”
His parents, Jack and Het, bought Gelliddu in 1952, after the small tenanted holding they farmed in Carmarthen was sold by their landlord.
Jack, who in 1947 was one of the first farmers in Carmarthenshire to use artificial insemination (AI) after an AI centre opened in Carmarthen, started registering cattle in 1955.
Bryan says: “At that point it was British Friesian, as the word Holstein did not exist.
“We were milking about 35 cows back then and always used black and white bulls. We graded up certain families and bought one or two registered cattle when finances allowed. We progressed from there.”
His brother Ronald established the Churchvale herd on another holding near Carmarthen and Bryan took responsibility for progressing the Gelliddu herd.
From then on, the focus was on classifying, concentrating on good type, which included a combination of good udder, legs, feet and yield.
As the Holstein started to dominate, the Thomas family crossed some of their Friesians and saw the benefits.
Bryan says: “Cows were milkier, so we advanced down that route.”
The all-year-round calving herd is now producing an annual milk yield average of more than 10,000 litres at 3.95 per cent butterfat and 3.25 per cent protein, with milk sold to Freshways. The calving index is 391 days.
Cows with high cell counts are culled and this keeps the somatic cell count low. It is currently running at 95,000 cells/ml.
The family farms 162 hectares (400 acres) at two locations; one at Gelliddu and another owned holding 10 miles away at Llansteffan. That land has red sandstone soils and is very productive, while Gelliddu has a mixture of clay and sandstone.
The herd is fully housed, a policy introduced in part to manage an ongoing issue with bovine TB. It is five years since the initial breakdown which has since plagued the business. Managing the herd in line with movement restrictions is a major headache and impacts on all decision-making.
Sales of surplus stock have been suspended and this has meant an unplanned increase in cow numbers.
Bryan says: “We are losing cattle we do not want to lose. TB does not discriminate between the best and worst.
“When the lorry comes to collect the animals that are to be slaughtered, I cannot be there as it is too upsetting.”
He is clearly angry that farmers have been tasked with the responsibility for eradicating TB.
He says: “We are never going to cure it in cattle until radical steps are taken to deal with infected wildlife. It is time common sense prevailed.
“From our own perspective I think we will be milking way more than 300 cows before we are out of TB and that is a problem we have to face.
“TB is having a detrimental impact on management, because cows are being retained in the herd for longer than they might otherwise be, so TB has skewed our longevity figures.”
As Bryan walks through the housing, he picks out some of the cow families that have become synonymous with Gelliddu: Alicia, Hazel, Jane, April, Echo, Fantee, Penny and Trolley.
One of Bryan’s favourites is the Jane family, which the Thomas’ graded up. That line, first established 60 years ago, is very good at producing heifer calves, he says.
Cows are bedded on sand and Bryan was one of the first dairy farmers in the UK to use it as a bedding material.
Its only shortcoming is that it fills up the slurry channels. For that reason, there is a second slurry lagoon to collect the sand sediment, which is cleaned out every three years.
The housed system means nearly all grass grown is made into silage.
“We have to make a lot of fodder,” says Bryan.
Heavier soils at Gelliddu preclude an early first cut, but cutting in mid-May means the farm can rely on contractors being available, because the queue of farmers needing their crops cut has diminished.
First cut this year was on May 19 and third cut in late August to allow a window for reseeding.
Maize is also an important component in the ration; acreage grown has increased by one-third this year to 49ha (120 acres).
Bryan says it is an expensive crop to grow, but a very stable feed: “You can make silage and it can be good or poor, but with maize you get consistency. When you analyse it, the whole crop is the same.
“It is easier to work with than a pile of silage that has different figures, it has a good effect on balancing the low pH of the silage. Before we grew maize, we would make good silage and it would go straight through cows, meaning we would have to buy-in fibre to balance it.”
Bryan is approaching his year as president of Holstein UK with the energy and enthusiasm which have characterised his farming career. He believes there is a good future for the next generation of dairy farmers, but gone are the days when a good living could be made from land with little effort.
He says: “It is now tougher to pay the bills, so for new entrants, farming is no longer a way of life it is a business like any other.”
He has words of wisdom for those seeking to make a career in dairy farming in uncertain times.
“Calm seas do not make good sailors; the farmers who will survive these times will need to be good at it.”