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Long life cows aim for Isle of Man herd

Andrew and Sue Sanders started dairying on the Isle of Man 20 years ago. One Gold Cup title and 109, 100-tonne cows later, cow longevity and grass use is key to their success. Laura Bowyer reports.


With a Gold Cup title and a track record of producing 100-tonne lifetime yield cows, the Sandisfarne herd is famed for cow longevity, having produced 109 of these high yielders so far.

Long life cows have always been the aim for Andrew and Sue Sanders, having started by buying cows in-calf with their fifth or sixth from dispersals, as they thought these must be the best animals.

Beginning with Friesians, Mr Sanders says these cows could quite commonly give 12-14 lactations but the breed began to veer more towards the Holstein type which has led to an average of less than four lactations.


Sue and Andrew Sanders pic

Sue and Andrew Sanders


Mr Sanders says: “We have always aimed to have long life cows and we currently have cull a rate of just 15 per cent.”

Originally from a beef and sheep farm on the Herefordshire-Shropshire border, Andrew Sanders had always intended to be a dairy producer.

Over time, quotas were leased to enable increased milk production and Mr Sanders says this could cost 12ppl at the time, so any profit made was given to someone else.

Manx dairying

Chairman of the Isle of Man Creamery for three years, Mr Sanders says when they first moved over, they were the island’s 100th producer.

These days there are just 32 Manx dairy farms, though cow numbers have stayed constant.

The island, which is only 30 miles long and 15 miles wide, produces 25 million litres per year, a quarter of which is sold as liquid. Cheese is an export, mainly shipped to the UK and America, although it can also be found on the Emirates airline’s cheese board.

One third of the 6.5m litres going as liquid is delivered to doorsteps. Delivered milk is sold to a fixed price of 60p per pint and Mr Sanders says they have a good stable following from the public.

The island is TB-free and is not home to badgers, foxes, squirrels, moles or deer.

Capital expenditures can be high at times as there is not the level of competition there is in the UK.

After many years of building up cow numbers and moving between farms after outgrowing them, including a time spent in West Wales, they considered what to do next. They saw an advert for the Manx farm, stressing the benefits of farming on the island, including farming without quotas and the
favourable tax rules. The Sanders family has now been farming on the island for 20 years.

They moved with 140 cows and 140 youngstock to the 162-hectare (400-acre) Ballalough Farm, which is now home to 600 cows, although the average herd on the island is closer to 120 cows.

Out of these milkers, 320 are Holsteins and the rest are Swedish Reds, registered with the Ayrshire Society. Mr Sanders says they were recently visited by the classifier and 68 cows were ‘excellent’. The herd was cross-breeding following the Pro-cross programme but now it has gone back to pure breeding.

Mrs Sanders says: “We had 26 families when we started and now two-thirds of the herd are the same family. In terms of genetics, 60 per cent of the two breeds go back to the Ruby family and the Blackberry and Melody families are also prominent.”

Milk supply

Most heifers calve in autumn and a fairly level milk supply has to be maintained throughout the year for the creamery. Another farm contract rears the heifers, taking them when in-calf and returning just before they calve down.

Autumn calving usually takes place from mid-September until Christmas and spring calving is from March to May.

At the time when the family won the Gold Cup in 2003-2004, they were milking three times per day with cows giving 12,000kg/lactation. Nowadays much more of a grass-based system is run, with Holsteins giving 8,800kg while red and whites give 8,200kg, though they are still producing 100-tonne animals. They do not buffer feed, but an amount of concentrate is fed in the parlour which, when imported, costs an additional £50/tonne.

Ballalough farm facts

  • The home farm of Ballalough is 162 hectares (400 acres), 142ha (350 acres) of which is the grazing platform. An additional 243ha (600 acres) is rented
  • The farm has used green bedding for three winters now and Mr Sanders thinks highly of it
  • Two sons, Matthew and Julian work at home, and there are five other people working on-farm

Mr Sanders says: “The grass keeps growing through summer, with July the best month for growth. It is a bit cooler here than in the UK.

“The creamery wants grass-fed milk as it helps with marketing.”

Using a 40-point rotary, milking takes three to 3.5 hours in the morning and two hours in the afternoon as some of the herd are on once per day milking.

He says: “The old herringbone did 32,000 hours in 10 years when doing three times a day milking. We lost litres when we switched from this milking pattern, but we did not lose any profit.”


The herd is averaging 3.4 per cent protein and 4.3 per cent fat and the farm is paid on constituents, receiving twice as much for protein as fat.

In the parlour, peracetic acid is used pre-milking. Cloths are used to clean teats and, after buying two washing machines for the job, Mr Sanders says it is cheap and effective. Post-milking, a barrier teat dip is used.

Grassland management is at the heart of the business and cows graze each of the 46 paddocks for 24 hours, with fertiliser applied after each paddock move. A late heading perennial rye-grass mix is used, also containing white clover and Timothy.

He says: “We are pedigree people who turn grass to milk. I sit in many camps when it comes to dairying.”

Upcoming sale

The Sanders are gearing up for a production sale at Beeston Cattle market on November 27 which will mark the Sandisfarne herd’s 40th anniversary where they will sell 200 heifers and young cows.

Stock is often sold privately, going all over the UK, but it costs £140/head for heifers to travel to the UK and the same for cull cows, which go to Dunbia at Preston.

Sexed semen is used and heifer production in the herd is high. It has been 20 years since beef semen was used in the herd.

Mr Sanders says: “There were 350 heifers born this year and we only have 470 cubicles, so we need to sell some stock.”

Cows will lodge in East Anglia before the sale as they have to be in the UK for at least two weeks before they can be sold, due to Isle of Man movement rules.

In all, 405ha (1,000 acres) of silage is taken over four cuts and baled, making 6,000 bales each year. This is fed out with a bale shear. A total mixed ration was fed when the farm was milking three times per day, but bales are now put out every other day.

This year Mr Sanders says they will take four cuts, rather than three, in an attempt to improve silage quality. He describes the island as having short weather windows, so they carry out their own silage work.

Dry cows are housed inside and fed haylage, with the grazing kept solely for milkers.

He says: “I bring feed to dry cows rather than them taking it away from the milking herd.”

Mrs Sanders adds: “Cattle do well on the Isle of Man. We have an average summer temperature of 17-18 degC and winters are at about 10-degC. We rarely have a frost here.”

Once per day trial

With the herd walking up to 0.9 miles (1.5km) to the parlour, once per day milking was trialled this spring on the lower yielding Holsteins. Mr Sanders says this group of milkers did not have a single problem with feet or udders in this time and they averaged 5,000kg.

These cows were given a kilo of barley at milking while twice a day spring calvers received 3kg rolled barley and 3kg blend.

The cows which milked twice per day were walking at 2-3kph while the once a day animals had a pace of 5kph, were settled in fields and grazed well, with no increase in cell count

Twice a day milkers have a 92 per cent submission rate to first service among the Holsteins and the once a day animals have 98 per cent.

He says: “Holsteins have tremendous persistency of production but they can lose too much weight on grass and become infertile. I thought once per day milking might solve this, but we have not been doing it long enough to have an answer yet.”

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