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Dairy special: How one farming family is experimenting with cross-breeding

For the Knapman family, cross-breeding began with a degree of trial and error, but has led to a system which is more suitable for the business. Ruth Wills reports...

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Dairy special: How one farming family is experimenting with cross-breeding

The cross-breeding journey for Richard and Laura Knapman started more than 10 years ago with a desire to produce smaller, hardier and more fertile cows with improved maternal instincts.


However, Mr Knapman, who farms with his wife at Shilstone Farm, one of two family farms near Umberleigh, Devon, explains that, for them, cross-breeding started as something of an experiment.


He says he initially put some Jersey semen onto his existing Holstein cows after reading an article about another farmer who had gone down the cross-breeding route.


He says: “We were coming to the end of serving and I thought cross-breeding would not be a bad idea. The article talked about better fertility and how the Holsteins were getting too big, so I decided to serve 10 cows with Jersey semen which produced four heifer calves.”


However, Mr Knapman did not go any further until he realised three of these cross-breds had reached their seventh lactation.


He adds the size of the Holsteins was an important factor in the change of direction.


He says: “When we started cross-breeding, we only had the old cubicles which were installed in the 1960s and the Holsteins were hanging off the back of them. The only thing getting bigger was their legs and legs do not earn you money.


“The cross-breds have shorter legs, which in my opinion makes a better cow. Normally on the Holsteins it is the legs that go wrong, but the crossbreds are more compact and have much better longevity.”


A few years later, Mr Knapman decided to experiment with another breed and bought-in 30 Norwegian Red cows, which all lasted well and some went on to become seventh calvers.

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But as Mr Knapman explains, it was a case of trial and error a lot of the time. He says: “A couple of years later I started going down the Swedish Red and Montbeliarde route for health and fertility, but when I started milking the Montbeliarde heifers they were massive.”


They decided not to keep the Swedish Reds either and eventually settled on using a three-way cross of Norwegian Red, Fleckvieh and Holstein, with cow numbers now at 380 milking cows.


Mr Knapman explains: “Sexed semen is used for the Holsteins and Norwegian Reds, and conventional semen for the Fleckviehs.”


He adds the Fleckvieh calves are worth more than Holstein calves when sold.


He says: “If British Blue bull calves make £200, Fleckvieh bull calves will be coming back at £175 and most of ours go to a private buyer.”


Before embarking on a crossbreeding programme, Mr Knapman says it is important to know what you are aiming for.


He says: “With cross-breeding you have to get it straight in your head what you want from your end cow.


“From the Norwegian Red, we wanted a smaller cow, with good fertility and longevity. The Fleckvieh was a hardier, beefier animal with high butterfat contents.


“The Holstein has a good udder and milk yield, but we only have one pure Holstein now.”


Last year calving took place from August to February, but this will be drastically shortened this year with the aim being to finish calving in November.


Mrs Knapman says: “We do not really want any calving in December at all, that is our plan.”


Serving starts in November, with up to 15 cows served a day and this year 120 calved in the last two weeks of August, and another 120 in September.


Mr Knapman says he prefers this tight calving period as the crossbreds are good mothers.


He says: “This works as long as you have enough room for the young calves to go into single pens.”


For calving, Mr Knapman has a shed partitioned with wooden hurdles and makes each cubicle into an individual pen.


“I hardly touch them when they are calving. The calves are up and running and have sucked – they are easy to deal with.”



The dairy calves leave Shilstone Farm at four days old and go to Mr Knapman’s parents’ farm, Collacott Farm, three miles away, to be reared, before coming back to be cubicle trained as bulling heifers.


Due to limited cubicle space, they go back to Collacott again before returning three weeks before calving at about two years old.


Mr Knapman says cross-breeding has had a positive impact on health and productivity.


He says: “They are very resilient and, while the overall yield has dropped by 400-500 litres per cow, the cost of production has dropped a lot too.


“The cross-breds produce 9,000 litres easily, but we did not choose them for the milk yield. We chose them for the health benefits. They would go up to 9,500 litres if we pushed them, but I would rather get them back in-calf.”


The Knapmans have made some other major changes to their farm over the past 10 years, which has included the installation of a new milking parlour and increasing the silage pits in 2011.


A new shed was built three years ago, and 60 Fleckvieh heifers were also bought-in to help expand numbers quickly.


Mr Knapman says: “We have just got to the end of a major expansion, so we are looking forward to reaping the benefits now.”


Cross-breeding has lowered the Knapmans’ cost of production, something which was also aided by joining a cost of production group with local farmers.


Mr Knapman says: “Our vets put the group together because we are all autumn calving and have some degree of cross-breeding, so it is really useful.


“It is a real warts-and-all group and makes you aware of your costs. Last year, with the drought, our cost of production went up to 30ppl. It is normally 26.5ppl, but we are aiming for 24ppl.”

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