A change in system prompted a switch to Montebeliardes and the Wood family have never looked back. Chloe Palmer reports.
A decision to convert to organic milk production in 2001 meant a complete rethink for Peter and Kath Wood and their son Adam, who farm at Shottle, Derbyshire. They were concerned their Holstein cows might not cope well with a change in diet to meet the 60 per cent forage requirement which forms part of organic certification.
Mr Wood says: “We had some superb Canadian bloodlines in our Holstein cows which we did not want to lose. I felt the cows we have bred over 30 years were a good place to start our change in direction so we selected bulls we thought would suit our system and used them on all our cows.”
After weighing up the benefits of different breeds and three-way crosses, Mr Wood decided grading up from Holsteins to Montebeliardes was the way forward.
“In 2003 our first Montebeliarde heifer calf was born into the herd by Indduvi out of one of our cows. We liked what we saw.
“We found the Montebeliarde performed well here so we decided to grade up by continuing to use pedigree semen on our cows. This way we were able to keep the size and frame from our original Holstein cows but take advantage of the health and fertility traits of the Montebeliarde.”
The grading up to pure Montebeliarde continued apace and now just six Holstein cows remain in a milking herd of almost 150. On closer inspection, the Shottle Montebeliardes bear little resemblance to some of their chunkier breed counterparts and this is no coincidence.
Mr Wood says: “My aim is to breed an excellent dual-purpose cow and by introducing the Montebeliarde we have kept the power and depth of the Canadian Holstein but filled in the hollows. We select our genetics carefully as we are looking for a lasting cow but we do not wish to compromise on production.”
The figures from the Shottle herd reflect the success of this strategy and the average yield reached 7,800 litres last year, but a devastating TB outbreak led to the loss of 45 cows from the herd. Mr Wood admits this was a deeply upsetting time for the family.
“We lost many of our best cows and to see all those quality animals walk up the ramp was heartbreaking. If it was not for the number of heifers we had coming through and a slight upturn in the milk price at the time, things could have become hard through the winter,” he says.
Yield is inevitably lower than what was achieved by the farm’s Holstein predecessors, but Mr Wood says the Montebeliardes have the ability to milk from forage and he rarely has calving problems. Mr Wood refers to their ‘fantastic mobility’, longevity and fertility as three valuable attributes.
He says: “These cows are averaging between three and four lactations and we achieve 63 per cent conception to first service, with a calving interval of about 400 days.
“We aim to calve the heifers at 26 months as I find the Montebeliardes are best left a little longer. I never serve a cow much before the 50th day of her lactation as it seems pointless putting her under more pressure if she is still giving 45 litres plus of milk each day.
“We will AI cows up to three times to the Montebeliarde, then put them to the sweeper Charolais stock bull.”
Heifers are calved down to an Aberdeen-Angus bull and this provides a chance to see how they are performing before the right Montebeliarde bull is selected for them. Heifers are kept in a separate group until they join the dry cows after their second lactation.
Mr Wood initially split the herd in response to a short-term lack of grazing but found it allowed the heifers settle down better with their cohort and he chose to continue with the system as it worked so well.
Whitehouse Farm has always been a family project and Mr and Mrs Wood were joined by their son, Adam in the farming partnership in 2007. Organic dairying has become a way of life and Mr Wood admits he has relished the change.
He says: “We are passionate about organic farming. It is a big step change as you need at least three acres per cow, rather than just two acres, but we find it is better way of farming. The cows and the grass leys last longer.”
Mr Wood’s brother in law, Bill Dilks of Agcon Contractors, carries out the cultivations, drilling and harvesting of the forage and cereal crops, allowing the Wood family to concentrate on the cows.
With the exception of a small amount of concentrate fed through the parlour, the dairy enterprise is entirely self-sufficient.
“We make silage from the barley and peas and feed this with wholecrop cereal, crimp and grass and red clover silage as part of a total mixed ration through winter,” Mr Wood says.
Grazed grass forms the cornerstone of the summer diet and Mr Wood likes to turn as many cows out as possible at the earliest opportunity.
“As soon as there is enough grass and the ground is firm enough we turn the cows out. One group of in-calf heifers were grazing stubble turnips last winter and it stayed so dry they stayed out until February 23, only coming in for a month before we turned them out again.”
Mr Wood’s seemingly relaxed attitude to the daily management of the farm belies a scientific approach to forage production and feeding. All the different forages which make up the total mixed ration are analysed by Hi Peak Organic Feeds, which also regularly carries out a foliar analysis of grazed grass.
The results from this analysis are used to formulate the balance of the total mixed ration and inform the nutritional content of the bespoke concentrate fed through the parlour. As a consequence, concentrate costs are kept to a minimum and milk from forage stands at 4,300 litres.
Last year Mr Wood became chairman of the Montebeliarde Society and it seems there are few stronger advocates for the breed, despite his acknowledgement of the value and widespread contribution made by the Holstein cow.
“The Montebeliarde is the only breed which will cross on most breeds and stamp its type and white face on its offspring. She is a good all-round cow with an excellent temperament and a long productive life and will fit into any system. She costs much less to keep and the improved calf and cull cow prices provides a significant part of our annual income.
“For us, introducing Montebeliardes has put life back into the Shottle herd. Our cows are great to work with and always make us smile. They are all characters and we will never regret our decision.”