Guernsey cows have enjoyed considerable success in recent years, both in the show ring and in commercial herds. Jane Brown visits one of the breed’s most dedicated families.
The Vincent family has been breeding Guernsey cattle since the 1950s, but few would have anticipated the changes the breed has seen over that time.
Formerly beaten into a niche market by the rise of commercial Holsteins, the breed is now experiencing quite a revival, with selective breeding and cutting edge milk development carving out a vibrant new future.
Ken Vincent founded the Kenvin herd at Higher Murchington Farm, Chagford, Devon, more than 60 years ago, and when his son Duncan returned to the family business in 1987, he was milking 60 cows.
Duncan says: “My father wanted to either give up or expand, so I came back from milking Friesians in Wales and doubled the size of the herd.
“My wife had been working with Pembrokeshire Ice Cream, so we decided to start a processing business making ice cream, cream, milk and clotted cream here.”
Duncan’s brother Ian joined the firm in 1994 and took on the processing side, and although he later sold it, Devonshire Farmhouse Ice Cream is still made on the farm using Guernsey milk.
Duncan now calves his 100 pedigree cows almost all year round to ensure consistent supply to the processing business, selling any surplus milk to Arla during seasonally quieter periods.
Over the past 12 years he has taken an active role in the Guernsey breed improvement programme, which makes the best genetics available to society members at affordable prices, to speed up the rate of genetic advancement.
“It has really been quite successful, improving milk production, udders, locomotion and fertility,” he says. “There has really been quite a transformation in the Guernsey type - they are a lot stronger than they used to be.”
Duncan’s latest bull to be registered under the scheme was Kenvin Sally’s Genghis, and he hopes to breed future stars by importing semen from America to produce home-bred studs.
“At the moment we have got Kenvin Lynne’s Crixus, which we use on heifers, and Kenvin Fresh Prince for older cows,” he says. “If someone wants a bull, I will sell the odd one, but I tend to only breed them for myself.”
Choosing bulls based on their Genetic Merit Index (GMI) and Profitable Lifetime Index (PLI), with a particular onus on fertility, milk production and protein, Duncan inseminates 60 per cent of his cows and runs a bull with the heifers and the remaining cows. “We calve our heifers at two or two-and-a-half years old, and try to calve in two batches around November and April.”
In-calf heifers and cows are fed a pre-calver nut with straw and silage over the winter, or a similar ration with grass over the summer, for a month before calving. After calving they move onto grass, silage or a total mixed ration according to the season, with the TMR split 60:40 grass to maize silage, with 2kg of blend. At all times they are fed cake in the parlour according to yield, at maintenance plus up to 15 litres.
Calves are bucket-fed in individual pens, with waste milk at quieter times or powdered milk when processing is at its peak. Bull calves are sold for veal, while heifer calves are retained as replacements or for pedigree sales.
Duncan says: “Five years ago we lost 60 animals to TB in two-and-a-half years, so we are still building the herd back up.
“I think we now have healthy badgers on the farm, and have been clear ever since, although I am still careful about where I graze my heifers and have stopped using molasses licks on the ground.”
Having almost reached ideal numbers again, Duncan - who is chairman of the English Guernsey Cattle Society - is selling a few heifers privately, both in the UK and abroad.
“We sold some to Holland last year and are also talking to farmers who are interested in processing their milk in Italy and Ireland,” he says.
“Guernsey milk is good for processing, and has unique health properties, including Omega 3 and Beta Casein A2, which makes it much easier to digest. There is a lot of work being done in that area at the moment.”
As well as being a commercial farmer and pedigree breeder, Duncan has long been a leading light in the world of showing.
“It is good to get your animals out in front of the public,” he says. “Unfortunately, due to TB and lack of time, I have not shown for quite a few years, but I am still involved with judging around the country.”
This year’s judging highlight will be at the Dairy Show. “I like getting out to meet other producers and see the quality of the animals on parade,” he says.
“It is a great feeling to be able to put a champion up that you think will be able to compete in the inter-breed final.”
The last time Duncan exhibited was at the Devon County Show, where he won the inter-breed dairy championship. “That’s pretty unusual for a Guernsey.”
So what will he be looking for in his Dairy Show champion this year? “You need good strength and a dairy frame, as well as good teat placement, as that had been one of the weaker points of the breed,” he says.
“If you do not have good attachment in the udder, it will affect commercial longevity, so it is an important trait.”
Sound legs and feet are also important, particularly when you farm on the edge of Dartmoor, up to 300 metres (1,000ft).
“The weather can be quite rough, so we house the heifers on loose yards and cows on cubicles over the winter, from January until mid-April,” he says.
Duncan grows 10 hectares (25 acres) of maize silage on the 60ha (150-acre) farm, and rents in 12ha (30 acres) of grass keep.
“We used to grow stubble turnips, but it taints the milk, so as well as permanent pasture we now we have three to four-year silage leys comprising white clover and high sugar rye-grass, with five to six-year grazing leys of clover and grass,” he says.
“We take two cuts of silage for the clamp and then a third cut for round bales, which we feed to the youngstock or over a dry summer if we are short of grass.”
All cows are vaccinated for leptospirosis and BVD and, following an unusual lung disease in adult cows, viral and bacterial pneumonia.
“We did buy in a cow with Johne’s, but following a spate of testing we have now got that sorted,” he says.
Although Guernseys are not known for high fertility, the herd averages 1.28 services per conception, with 64 per cent conceiving at first service. The cows are dry for two months, and have a calving index of 420 days.
“Because we are calving year-round, we do not mind too much if they slip a bit,” says Duncan. “We have a fortnightly vet visit, to check for retained placentas and any other problems.”
Dry cows are treated with a dry cow tube, and by changing the pump liners three times a year, he has cut mastitis cases to 50 a year.
“Channel Island cows are known to be susceptible to milk fever, but as long as you feed straw in the diet, it is fine - we are down to seven or eight cases a year.”
Having moved on so much in recent years, the breed has now reached something of a crossroads, Duncan adds.
“The new PLI is looking at longevity traits, which is important. We still feel we need to be looking for milk production, which is why we select genetics on a mixture of PLI and GMI.
“Protein has been slipping a bit in the GMI, so we need to address that as a lot of milk payments are protein based. We are actively selecting bulls which are positive for protein, fertility and production.”