The new Dairy Shorthorn Society president will take centre stage at the Royal Highland Show to judge the breed classes. Angela Calvert reports.
There will be a different role for James Robinson at the Royal Highland Show. After winning the Dairy Shorthorn championship last year, this year he will be taking centre stage as judge for the breed.
He says: “The Royal Highland is a great show to compete at, with good facilities for cows and a great atmosphere. It will be different for me this year, but I am still very much looking forward to the experience.
“One of the highlights for me after winning the championship last year was the grand parade. The crowd is so interested in stock and agriculture, much more so than at other shows.”
Mr Robinson runs 130 Dairy Shorthorn cows plus followers on an organic system at Strickley, near Kendal, Cumbria, with his father Henry and mother Kathleen.
The family came to the farm in 1875 and Mr Robinson is the fifth generation of the family to farm there. With sons Robert, 12, and Chris, 10, showing a keen interest, the family tradition looks set to continue well into the future.
Dairy Shorthorns have always been the breed of choice at Strickley, and although the family were some of the first people to import MRIs in the 1960s, and more recently acquired a few Brown Swiss, it looks set to remain that way.
Mr Robinson will take over as president of the Dairy Shorthorn Society just before the Royal Highland Show.
He says: “We have strong ties with the breed and the society. It is 100 years since the first pedigree Dairy Shorthorn was on-farm. We know they work for us and for the farm and are easily managed with good health, fertility and longevity.
“They are suited to an organic grass-based system. Although most fields are within half a mile of the farm, to reach the furthest one they have to walk a mile each away.
“It is also steep in parts and I do not want a cow which stands at the bottom of the hill looking up at the grass.”
The decision to switch to organic was taken 10 years ago when the milk price was at a low point.
Mr Robinson says: “We looked at the price difference and realised we would not have to change the way we did things too much.
“While in conversion, the first two years are hard because you are farming organically, but still getting the conventional price. I would say it takes five years for the land and yourselves to get used to it.
“One of the biggest things is having to shut your eyes to weeds, as you cannot spray for docks. If the weed burden gets too great, the only way is to plough them in, which means we have to reseed certain fields more often than if we were farming conventionally.”
High sugar grasses and white clover is used and regular soil testing is undertaken to ensure correct pH balance. Mr Robinson has recently started using a plate meter to measure grass in a move towards paddock grazing.
He says: “Once you get your eye in, you do not really need to use it, but it makes you think about grass growth. We have been using electric fencing to create paddocks and I am impressed with how it is working, so will be looking to put in some more permanent fencing and cow tracks.
“Unfortunately, we are losing some rented grazing after this year, so we need to work grass we have harder.”
A forage wagon has been bought, so all silage work is now done in-house.
Mr Robinson says: “We had a good contractor, but this gives us more control of what we do and when, and if we have small pieces to cut at different times, we can do so ourselves.”
Milk is sold to OMSCo, and the current summer price is 30.75p/kg with a rolling average price of 38p/kg.
He says: “There are some good people at the top of OMSCo and it has small overheads. It is doing a good job of developing and selling into niche markets, both in the UK and abroad, and the business is growing.
“Summer is the lowest price point for milk, so we make sure it is our lowest production time of year. We calve mainly in late summer and early autumn, so our peak production coincides with higher prices.
“This suits us because we never get a drought here and always have a lot of late season grass.”
Strickley Barrington Dot 21 won champion Dairy Shorthorn at last year's Royal Highland Show
Cows are obviously doing well on the system, producing more milk than ever, with an increase of 100,000 more litres last year from the same acreage. Mr Robinson puts this down to better breeding and fertility, improved cow health and reducing calving age.
He says: “We work closely with our vet Kirsty Ranson of Westmorland Vet Group on fertility and health. Obviously, being organic, we are limited in the use of antibiotics, although we can use them when necessary, but it is not as difficult as it sounds.
“We use selective dry cow therapy and less than 5 per cent of cows need antibiotics. This is something all dairy farmers are going to have to look at to reduce antibiotic use.
“Attention to detail and hygiene is vital and it is amazing how a cow can improve by itself during the dry period if managed correctly. We have had cows with bactoscans of 250-300 which have come down to 100.”
Dry cows are kept inside during summer and fed a high dry matter diet of silage, straw and minerals.
Mr Robinson says: “Managing them properly before calving is so important. It is more work having them inside, but it pays off.
All calves are given jackets for their first eight weeks after birth
“They get too fat outside on grass in summer and we have a lot of flies, because of the ponds and woodlands we have, which encourages mastitis.
“Since we have kept them in, we have significantly reduced instances of slow fever, retained cleansings and milk fever.”
The family also pays great attention to heifer rearing to ensure they calve at 22-24 months old. Calves are fed their own mother’s colostrum after birth and have a jacket put on straight away which stays on for about eight weeks.
“We monitor calves closely and weigh them regularly when we are handling them for other purposes. We did some trials on calves with and without jackets and those with them on gained weight quicker.”
The aim is to serve heifers when they reach about 335kg bodyweight, which Mr Robinson says is easily achievable at about 12 months, even though in terms of milk production, Dairy Shorthorns are a late maturing breed.
The herd average is currently at more than 7,000kg, with some cows producing 10,000-11,000kg.
Mr Robinson says: “When they get to their fourth or fifth lactation, they really start to pay for themselves in terms of milk production.
“I expect to get at least six calves out of a cow and we have a couple of 12th-calvers in the herd, one of which, 14-year-old Strickley Lady Hermione 4, has produced 100 tonnes of milk.”
Artificial insemination (AI) is used across the herd, with Mr Robinson doing all the work himself.
He says: “We have improved conception rates in the year since I started doing AI. I think mainly because it is more timely.”
Most of the semen used, including some sexed, is from the breed society’s Red Cattle Genetics company, but Mr Robinson has successfully used foreign genetics, particularly from Australia. Limousin and Aberdeen-Angus bulls are used on part of the herd.
Limousin cross calves are sold at one-month-old at J36 Crooklands market, where they average about £300. Aberdeen-Angus crosses and Dairy Shorthorn bulls are sold privately at two weeks old to average £90.
A recent investment has been made in a new building with slats over a slurry pit. This has allowed another 40 cubicles to be added, which will house high yielding cows.
Everything has been designed with cow comfort in mind. Slats have a non-slip surface and there is rubber in front of the feed barrier.
Cubicles have a cranked head rail and high-end mattresses are used with powder bedding and are limed every day to reduce incidences of mastitis.
Mr Robinson says: “This will ease pressure on old buildings and we have already seen improvements in cow health. The extra slurry storage means we will be able to spread when we want.”
The farm is in its sixth year of organic Higher Level Stewardship and a major part of this is access, with more than 100 school visits hosted each year.
To accommodate these, a purpose-built classroom and toilet block have been built adjacent to the house.
Mr Robinson’s wife Michelle, a primary school teacher, is very involved with this aspect of the farm.
Mr Robinson is a key part of the wider community, working as a voluntary first responder for North West Ambulance Service, and is on call all the time.
He says: “We go out to all sorts of incidences from trauma, falls, farm and industry accidents, but most commonly cardiac arrests. Time is critical in these cases and local knowledge can make all the difference. The skills and training I have through this are very good to have.”
Mr Robinson says social media has a big role to play in promoting farming to the general public.
He says: “It is great to be able to communicate quickly with a large number of other farmers for discussion and debate from a personal point of view, but it is important to get farming messages out to the wider community.
“Through my other roles, I have a lot of Twitter followers from different walks of life, so it is good to be able to tell them what we as farmers do and what we need to do more of as an industry.”