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DAIRY SPECIAL: Conversion to organic system calls for more robust cattle

For one Scottish dairy farmer, switching to farming on an organic system highlighted room for improvement within his herd of top quality Holstein cattle. Hannah Noble reports.

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Robert Shanks converted Queenscairn to organic status in 2006.
Robert Shanks converted Queenscairn to organic status in 2006.
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Conversion to organic system calls for more robust cattle

When he converted Queenscairn to organic status in 2006 as a way of maximising the potential in his milk price, Robert Shanks, Kelso, noticed the new system of farming was taking its toll on his herd of beloved pedigree Holsteins.

 

He says: “When I went organic, for some reason the oldest cows seemed to get a boost and we had a period where there were five cows whch had produced more than 100 tonnes of milk in the herd at once.

 

“The problem after that was that as heifers became second-calvers, they were thinner than they were as heifers and as third-calvers they were thinner again and so on. And many were not getting back in-calf after that. It is like the Holstein did not suit the organic system.

 

“I think it also had to do with cattle not getting fed properly. The Holstein is a high powered animal and it needs a fairly high input diet.

 

“Rather than criticising the Holstein, I would say I think it was the system of feeding that did not suit them.”

 

Robert started to wonder if the answer to his problems was in retracing his grandfather’s steps and introducing British Friesian blood back into the 250-strong herd.

 

The Shanks family has a long history of breeding black and white cattle. It started with Robert’s grandfather James, who paved the way with his herd of British Friesians established in 1922 when the family farmed in Kirkcudbright, and carried the Rattra prefix.

 

Robert took special interest in the genetics and pedigrees of the Holstein breed long before he took over the task of hand-selecting bulls, from his father Robert senior in the early 1980s. One of the first bulls he remembers using was Butlersview Matador.

One of Queenscairn's in-calf heifers
One of Queenscairn's in-calf heifers

He says: “In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Dad had used some Canadian influenced bulls and when I started picking in the early 1980s I just used Holstein from there on.”

 

However, in 2012 Robert decided to start crossing back to the Friesian. She says: “We were fed up of having to lift cows which had slipped and done the splits.

 

“At our worst time with the Holsteins we would go into the shed and we would be looking up each passage expecting a cow to be down.”

 

Robert says cows going down had become a big problem on his farm with many good cows lost this way.

 

He says: “I want to breed animals which have a long and productive life. They are not much good to me if I have to lift them. Friesians are a lot more robust. If they slip they get back up again.”

 

Robert says he was worried about a drop in milk with the cross to Friesian. And he admits the cross-bred animals do not produce as much milk as his Holsteins did, but they are milkier than the old-fashioned type of Friesian was.

 

"I want to breed animals which have a long and productive life. They are not much good to me if I have to lift them." - Robert Shanks

 

He says: “We did see a drop in milk, but it was not catastrophic. We are not breeding an animal which does not want to milk.”

 

However, this loss of milk is outweighed by other benefits the Friesians have brought to the herd and Robert says the Friesian crosses are far more fertile than the Holsteins were.

 

At its worst the calving interval was 430 days, but it now sits comfortably at 382 days. Cows are also lasting longer, with some now staying in the herd until their seventh lactation.

 

One stipulation of organic milk production is the cows must graze for as much of the year as possible and at Queenscairn the cows are turned out from April until the end of October.

 

This means when selecting Friesian bulls to use on the cows, Robert pays special attention to their feet, leg and udder traits.

Three-month-old Friesian cross calves.
Three-month-old Friesian cross calves.

He says: “We need an animal which is comfortable on its feet and is able to walk properly; they have to graze.

 

“I am not too worried about stature, but I do not want to breed a very small cow. I also think the udders on the modern Friesians are improving, but it is hard to compare them with the Holstein as the udders are perfect.

 

“You hardly see a bad udder on a Holstein so I think the Friesian has a bit to go.”

 

Robert made Friesian the breed of choice to cross onto his Holsteins rather than another breed, partly because he had always been interested in pedigrees.

 

But he says another advantage is that he is able to continue registering the resultant cross-bred cattle through Holstein UK which is responsible for the national herdbook for both Holstein and British Friesian cattle.

 

He says: “I have stopped classifying in the meantime because I think I will get hammered with the cattle we are developing at the moment. They are neither one thing nor the other.

 

“If they classify them as Holsteins they will not like them. But I will go back to classifying in time.”

 

Herd health is also a major area of focus for Robert and he enrolled in a premium cattle health scheme back in the 1980s.

 

Cows are milked through a two-year-old 32:32 DeLaval rapid exit parlour.
Cows are milked through a two-year-old 32:32 DeLaval rapid exit parlour.

He says: “For years I thought I had shot myself in the foot as we could not buy anything in for fear of bringing in disease. Even if I took something to sell at market I could not bring it home.

 

“But now thankfully we are ahead of many other people in terms of BVD and Johne’s disease. We are BVD-accredited and risk level one for Johne’s.”

 

Robert says by breeding a more robust type of dairy cow it has given both him and the cows a better quality of life.

 

“I have got to have a decent quality of life and I am including in that not having to lift cows. There is not much quality of life in that, for the animal or for me.

 

“So long as the focus is on milky cattle, the Friesians have a future, not just a dumpy animal which is no use. They have to be commercially valuable and be something a commercial producer would see a use for.”

 

Going forward Robert intends to carry on breeding his cattle to Friesian bulls and see where it takes his herd.

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The total mixed ration comprises grass silage, wholecrop, barley, oats and soya.

Farm facts

  • The family moved to their current farm in Queenscairn, Kelso, in 1955 and the herd now carries the Queenscairn prefix
  • The herd is run on two farms comprising 323 hectares (800 acres) in total
  • Milk is sold to Graham’s Family Dairy
  • Cows are milked through a two-year-old 32:32 De Laval rapid exit parlour
  • A handful of female blood was introduced into the herd in the 1990s through embryos including: the Faith family from Genus; the Kimo family from Annan Holsteins, Annan; the Ricki family from Errolston Holsteins, Gretna; the Melanie family from Fradon Holsteins, Canada; and the Pambla family from Roybrook Holsteins, Canada
  • Currently, cows achieve an average production of 9,000 litres at 4.25 per cent fat and 3.3 per cent protein
  • The total mixed ration comprises grass silage, wholecrop, barley, oats and soya, and is formulated with the help of Mole Valley Farmers and Norvite
  • Robert is currently using British Friesian bulls, such as Lakemead Jingle and Gemini Norseman, across the herd
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