Remaining loyal to the Ayrshire does not mean compromising on margins or production. Chloe Palmer meets one of the UK Dairy Day Judges to find out more.
At 445 metres (1,100 feet) above sea level, Brundcliffe farm, in the Peak District, has the ‘highest’ registered herd of Ayrshires and is home for Michael Broadley, one of the judges at next week’s UK Dairy Day show at Telford.
Nestling into the Peak District hills, Brundcliffe Farm is perhaps what many people visualise when they think of free-range dairy cows on picturesque acres of grassland.
Michael and his brother Andrew have been running the family farm near Hartington for almost 20 years since taking over from their father in 1997. Michael acknowledges their easy relationship; as well as dividing up the farming tasks and the paperwork, they also plan to ensure each gets every other weekend off, at least after milking has finished.
He admits ‘Ayrshires are in my blood’, but the brothers also milk 57 Holsteins alongside the 151 pedigree Ayrshires.
Michael says: “I returned from Reaseheath College in 1992 and over there all the cows were black and white. Dad has never been one to hold us back, so he said we would be milking the cows so we could milk what we wanted.
“So I bought our first Holstein and although we have increased Holstein numbers, Ayrshires will always be the mainstay of the herd.”
Michael points out the characteristics of the Ayrshire make it so well suited to an upland, all grass farm.
He says: “Fertility is one of the key strengths of the Ayrshire. We have had five cows in the herd which have yielded more than 100 tonnes of milk and had 10 or 11 calves and we have several others which are approaching these figures.
“We notice the Ayrshires have more ‘get up and go’ and if they have a knock, they seem to recover so much more easily. There is also the benefit of ease of management and, of course, longevity,” he adds.
Michael is enthusiastic about continuously improving the performance of the Ayrshire herd and he chooses the AI sexed semen sires for the heifers and first services.
“We used Red Holstein genetics for a period but after a few years of doing this we were not clear where this was taking us, so we went back to the pure Ayrshire bloodlines.”
Now the herd includes a significant proportion of ‘Excellent’ cows such as Ruth 87, an EX95 which averages 8,000 litres per annum and has had 10 calves, of which one is classified as Excellent and another looks likely to achieve a similar classification.
A pedigree bull, Whitecroft Furtado, is used on a large proportion of the cows and his semen is now available through Cattle Services Ayr. Bred for fertility, its dam and grand dam both produced five calves from five straws.
“His daughters are going to the bull now so time will tell whether he meets our expectations. We sold a grandson of his dam, Whitecroft Doctor Foster, to Genus so his bloodlines are first class,” Michael says.
The Broadley family have a history of involvement with the breed society. Andrew is currently on the Ayrshire Cattle Society council and their father, John Broadley, is a former president.
Michael now sits on the Ayrshire breed heritage committee so he has first-hand knowledge of the direction the breed is moving in.
“The aim of the breed heritage committee is to produce genetics to carry the Ayrshire cow forward. We have some cows in our herd on the watch list, so the development committee will recommend matings for them and their progeny will be monitored,” Michael explains.
Breeding the best Ayrshire cows he can is Michael’s goal but this is for the benefit of their own milking herd. In recent years, selling cows has not been an option as the total herd size has increased from 160 to 208 cows following a decision to contract out the heifer rearing.
“In late 2014, we chose to send a few heifers away to a contract rearer in Beverley after we saw an advert in the Farmers Guardian. This went well, so in December 2014 we decided to send all the heifers to him and this allowed us to expand the milking herd,” Michael says.
Now the milking herd has reached the desired numbers, parting with some of the cows will be a necessity but not an easy choice, according to Michael.
“I am not a fan of selling cows, I like to milk them but I realise we will have to sell the odd one. I would never sell anything which I would not like to milk myself. We want our customers to come back to us in the future.
“And should we sell some of the older cows? If we do this we may lose some of the animals which will go on to produce 100t of milk. Or do we sell the heifers with the better genetics?” he ponders.
Managing cows so they ‘rarely ail’ means attention to detail and constantly striving to improve, both of which appear to be fundamental to the strategy at Brundcliffe Farm.
Sending the youngstock away freed up a shed which is now solely for dry cows and this has enabled Michael and Andrew to focus on transition cow management.
“We now feed a calcium binder supplement with silage to the dry cows to tackle milk fever and have been pleased with the results,” Michael says.
Calves are separated at birth but are fed four feeds of their mother’s colostrum before they are switched to milk powder. After diagnosing Johne’s in a cow bought-in after a small number of cows were lost to TB, they no longer pool colostrum.
Calves are weaned at six weeks onto an 18 per cent weaner nut and straw is fed to maintain fibre intakes. To ease the imminent transition to their new home, calves are fed more silage before they are sent away at three to four months of age.
The contract rearer also has an arable business and bed and breakfast pigs, so developing a system which works for him but also gives results for the future milking herd is important.
Michael says: “The first group of heifers came back last spring and we are really pleased with them. We have used heat time collars on them for practical reasons, whereas at home we still rely on stockmanship to spot cows which are bulling,” Michael says.
Heifers calve at between 23 and 27 months old and the Ayrshires achieve an average calving interval of 383 days compared to the figure of 406 days for the Holsteins. Michael believes when averaged out over a lifetime, there is little to choose between the Ayrshires and the Holsteins.
“Although the Ayrshires average 8,251 litres compared to an average figure for the Holsteins of 10,001 litres, if we consider the calving interval and the number of lactations for the two breeds, it is a close call,” Michael says.
The Holsteins and the Ayrshires are recorded separately but are managed identically as a single group. Cows are usually turned out in April, although the inclement Peak District weather can interrupt best laid plans.
“We like to turnout sooner rather than later because otherwise we find the grass gets away from us but it is having the nerve to do it in some years,” Michael says.
Michael and Andrew aim to make two cuts of silage, with the first cut in early June and the second cut in late July or early August. Occasionally a third cut will be necessary if volume is disappointing but this year was a ‘big crop’, according to Michael, so the land will be grazed until autumn when cows are housed in mid- to late-October.
Michael believes the ability of the Ayrshires to convert forage to milk is one of their most important attributes and this, along with the other traits which enable ease of management is just some of the characteristics he will be considering when judging next week.
“I think the emphasis is now on producing a more balanced cow rather than a larger animal because big is not necessarily beautiful. I am looking for that bit of style, but I also want something the commercial man would like to milk.
“I am looking for a cow with a good udder and sound feet and legs so she will stand someone in good stead for many productive years of easy care,” Michael says.