Producing the right cow for a system and situation is the goal for Ian Collins. Chloe Palmer visits him ahead of his trip to the Dairy Show to find out how he has achieved his goal.
Four decades ago, while many dairy farms were turning to the Holstein for increased yield, Mary Collins and her husband chose to establish their pedigree herd of Dairy Shorthorns at Church Farm, Whitley, near Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Now it seems the breed is making a comeback.
Mrs Collins says: “Everyone thought we were mad back then, but now we are getting quite a bit of interest in our bulls from farmers with Holstein herds,”
Mrs Collins’ son, Ian, suddenly found himself running the farm 10 years ago when his father died, although he was closely involved with its management for 10 years before this.
He says: “My father always let me have an input. He encouraged me to choose the bulls from when I was a teenager.”
Mr Collins has evidently inherited all the passion for the breed from his parents and is very clear about what he looks for in his cows.
He says: “We are perched on the edge of the Pennines and have a lot of fields on the side of a steep hillside. We need a mobile cow which can walk and graze, so our cows need to have excellent conformation and we are not looking for an extreme type.”
Functionality has not been at the expense of appearance, however. The Churchroyd herd of pedigree Shorthorns has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success during this year’s showing season.
Mr Collins says: “We won every trophy at the National at the Cheshire Show. We won the supreme and reserve titles at the Great Yorkshire Show and achieved the new breed record for a bull sold at the society sales. It has been a very good year for us.”
Mr Collins leaves much of the preparation and showing to his mother and sister, Wendy, but he says his son, Harry, and daughter, Molly are ‘very keen’ and show every sign of picking up the reins from their father and grandmother.
“We have all grown up with showing, we enjoy it and there is a great social side to it too,” says Mr Collins.
“I always try not to over-do any of our animals in the ring and I get the greatest pleasure from winning with different cows. I want to be known for having a good herd, not just one or two good animals.”
Their exceptional record in the show ring is the end result of almost four decades of careful selection and blending to reach the desired type.
“I am always looking for a cow which has width throughout and great legs and feet,” says Mr Collins. “All my cows must have an exceptional udder and I am ruthless with animals which do not make the grade because it is the only way to improve the herd.”
Not content with having a string of show champions, Mr Collins believes there is always scope to better his herd.
“There is no one who is more critical of my cows than me. There are always cows and cow families which need improvement and I am always looking to move the poorer performing end of the herd nearer to the top.”
The Churchroyd herd has attracted some controversy among the more traditional Shorthorn breeders because Mr Collins is not afraid to blend genetics from other breeds.
“Traditionally, the fore-udder of the Shorthorn needed to be corrected, so I used Ayrshire blood to improve it.
“I am not scared of experimenting because just using one bull as a quick fix might not be the answer. Sometimes a cow may appear to be too extreme, but it is not always the first cross I am looking for.”
Mr Collins is also quick to dispel the myth that the durability of the Shorthorn comes at the expense of milk. “I do not see any reason why a dairy farmer should tolerate a lack of yield in return for longevity. My cows are averaging 8,000 litres and many of them will have eight or 10 calves.
“I have also have a third-calver which has done 13,000 litres in 305 days and she won the supreme championship at the Great Yorkshire Show this year.”
Mr Collins does not look for a high turnover within the herd to progress the genetic potential more quickly.
“I want to move forwards all the time, but I will not ignore the animals which are lasting and still producing excellent yields.
“I value this trait in a cow because she has to produce at least two calves before she has paid for herself.”
Mr Collins is quick to point out he does not pursue yield when managing his herd because he believes the additional litres would come at a price.
He says:”We achieve our current average yield with no problems, but I think if we try and push the cows harder, we might encounter problems and cost.”
Mr Collins is now producing high quality bulls which are occasionally for sale and the process starts with the selection of the bull mothers.
“I earmark the bull mothers long before they are served by referring to their classifications to assess their potential because I will always breed a bull from a good cow family rather than just one good cow.
“Any bull calf which does not have the back pedigree will end up in the bull beef unit, irrespective of how good looking it is.
“I sell them at two or three weeks old, so I am not tempted to keep something which does not have the right breeding.”
Mr Collins is not afraid to make use of embryo transfer in certain circumstances, but he does not flush good cows as a matter of course.
“Most of our good cows last and we usually have as many as 10 calves from them, so this reduces the need for embryo transfer,” he adds.
Mr Collins has refined his rearing system for heifer calves over the last 12 months to ensure a higher proportion will calve at two years.
“For the last six months we have been weaning calves at 12 weeks rather than eight, and we have seen tremendous growth rates. At six months old, the calves which have been weaned later are bigger and better and they maintain this growth.”
Mr Collins believes management of the calves in the first two weeks of their lives will minimise setbacks later on.
“It is vital the calves experience a good start, so all ours receive their mother’s milk for four days and then we mix this half and half with milk powder for the next two weeks. They are then fed milk powder right through until weaning.”
Making the most of the grass around the farm is the aim for the milking herd and this can provide challenges in relation to climate and limited land.
Mr Collins says:”We only have 30 hectares of grass around the farm and although we are on quite heavy land, the soils are thin and it can soon burn off in a dry summer. So we aim to turn the cows out as early as possible, usually in March, to make the most of the early bite.”
Cows are out until November in most years and Mr Collins says this is where the Shorthorn hardiness comes into its own.
“Our cows are out in the middle of the field grazing when others might be standing under a hedge to shelter from the weather. The Irish are one of our best customers because they are looking for a cow which will thrive in poor weather and milk off grass.”
Securing more land around the farm is unlikely in the near future, so expanding the milk herd is not an option for Mr Collins. He says increasing sales of bulls and semen is the way forward.
“When customers come to buy a bull, they can see its back pedigree for themselves. I want to be selling bulls and semen to repeat customers in 10 years’ time, so I want to make sure we get everything right.”
Alongside this growing line of business is another diversification which is flourishing. The Collins’ work with an agent who sources animals for television productions and cows from the Churchroyd herd are now making regular appearances.
Mrs Collins is optimistic for the future of this novel business opportunity. She says: “We have provided cows for Emmerdale in the past and now our cows feature in the BBC production, The Village.
“We are hoping the farm in the series will be looking to increase cow numbers in the near future.”