Cow numbers have increased dramatically over recent years at the Drisgol herd of Dairy Shorthorns. Laura Bowyer visits Pembrokeshire to see what changes have been made.
With a history in both the Limousin and Dairy Shorthorn breeds, the Thomas family, of Drysgolgoch, Llwyndrain, Pembrokeshire, cemented their future in the Shorthorn breed in the mid-1990s, reducing their Limousin numbers and paving the way for their future in dairy, which they felt would be the more fruitful option long-term.
Seimon Thomas now runs the Drisgol herd of Dairy Shorthorns, the largest in the country, together with his wife Eleanor, son Sion and daughter Hanna, both 22, who are twins.
Until the year 2000 the family was milking 110 cows, and the following year they went organic. The milk price was strong and they were also pursuing a grass-based system. Furthermore, they felt they had the cow, in the form of the Shorthorn, to suit such a system.
After a decade of running an organic operation and getting cow numbers to 300, the family took the farm out of certification, largely because they were finding it too difficult to find organic grass to make silage for the ever expanding herd.
In the last six years, the family has bought 121 hectares (300 acres) adjoining their existing ground and cattle numbers have been increased through production of their own heifers, with all services to dairy semen. The herd is now up to 700-head, with 400 youngstock.
Seimon says: “With two children, we could see we may have to support three families off our farm and so we needed to up the cow numbers.”
Now running a closed herd, except for bull purchases, Seimon says he is looking for a cow which can graze and produce milk from grass, being about 600kg liveweight.
The grazing platform at Drysgolgoch adjoins the farm while silage is made three to six miles away, and heifers are kept on off-lying ground.
Heifers are put to the bull at 14 to 15 months old at 300kg, and calving takes place in two batches, with 400 calving in spring and 350 in autumn, to take the pressure off the spring milk price.
Cows are artificially inseminated with either their own semen or bought-in from Shorthorn Sire UK (formerly Red Cattle Genetics) or Genus, and both Seimon and Sion can carry out the AI.
The farm has been part of the Merlin grazing group since 2001, purely for dairy farmers in the south west Wales area. The group meets once-a-month and they benchmark each other’s performance.
The farm operates a paddock strip grazing system. Cattle are turned out in mid-February, and the spring calvers come inside in mid-December, while the autumn calvers come inside earlier.
Cattle are moved every 12 hours within their paddock. Every time they are brought in for milking, the fence is moved, so between the two herds, four fences are moved on the farm each day over 60 paddocks, working to a 21-day rotation, achieving 10-11 rounds of all paddocks each year.
The biggest challenge of their farming system, Seimon says, is the weather, being 11 miles from the coast with an annual rainfall of 1,830mm.
He says: “There are mountains between us and the coast, so we have a particularly high rainfall here compared to other local areas. When it is really wet we follow an ‘on or off’ grazing pattern where cattle go out to graze for three to five hours, which is all they really need to fill up, and then they come in to stop the ground being poached.”
Some years turnips are involved in the rotation to clean the ground up, and grazing leys are reseeded when required, while silage ground is re-seeded every three to six years, both with a white clover ley mix. In each cut, 152ha (380 acres) is cut and by the end of the silage season, 405 hectares (1,000 acres) will be put into three pits; one for the milking herd, one for dry cows and another for youngstock.
When feeding inside, silage straight from the clamp is provided and over the course of the year 1.1 tonnes of concentrates per cow are fed through the parlour each year. When cows begin to calve 5-6kg will be fed each day and in-calf females have a blend and low yielders are fed wheat gluten.
Cows are producing 6,000kg per cow per year, at 4.3 per cent butterfat and 3.4 per cent protein and milk goes on a liquid contract to Freshways in London.
He says: “We do not chase fats but we do feed for fats in winter, giving high digestible fibre.”
Seimon adds there are increasing numbers of black and white herds looking to the Shorthorns for new blood lines, using them in their breeding to benefit their legs and feet and hardiness. And as grass-based systems gain popularity across the country, the breed may begin to show its real benefits, after decades of breed improvements.
Last year, 70 heifers were sold, with 38 going to Ireland, and three-quarters of all youngstock sold entered black and white herds.
Seimon says: “Introducing Shorthorn blood can put strength and fertility back into the herd while also improving legs and feet.
They run a 10- to 12-week breeding period, with three to four services carried out in this period. Six weeks will be to dairy and five weeks to beef semen – a combination of British Blue, Aberdeen-Angus and Beef Shorthorn. A Limousin sweeper bull is also used from the remaining suckler herd.
All dairy beef bull calves leave the farm at three to four weeks of age through Carmarthen market, or private sales.
The main reason for culling in the past, according to the Thomas’, was cell counts but since installing a new 70-point Dairymaster rotary parlour in 2015 with automatic cluster flush, this has not been such a problem, and this year cullings have been largely due to empty cows. Previous to the rotary, the 24:24 Herringbone was running for 12 hours of the day and now 700 cows can be milked in just 2.5 hours.
Seimon says: “Although the milk price crashed shortly after we installed the new parlour, it has been a big asset, really for management purposes, and we also improved the handling systems.
“As the herd increased, a special purpose calf shed was built, at the same time as the rotary parlour, and can house 250 calves. We installed a diversion line from the parlour to the calf shed enabling us to choose whether to use liquid milk or purchased milk powder.”
In terms of future cow numbers, Sion adds: “We would like to rear less heifers and be more selective at the same time. We are also looking to make the herd more efficient and keep more cows per hectare.”
The family can be spotted in the ring. Sion, who now works at home full-time after returning from Harper Adams, and sister Hanna, who is in her last year of an agricultural degree at Aberystwyth University, take the lead and can be seen at the Royal Welsh Show, Welsh Dairy Show, the national calf show and Pembrokeshire Show.
But Seimon says: “We have five show cows and the 695 others pay the bills.”
Noteworthy success in past years include: