A self-confessed ‘genetics addict’, Molly Westwood is making an impression on UK and European Holstein breeding. In the first of a feature series celebrating young breeders, Rachael Porter visits Devon to find out more.
It is easy to be in awe of Molly Westwood. At just 25 years old, she is already well on the way to making a global name for Panda Holsteins, the Devon-based pedigree Holstein herd which was originally founded by her father Andrew in 2004.
And she has big plans for the future, with her focus firmly set on developing genetics. But what really stands out is her passion for dairy cows and a very obvious determination to carve a career in dairying, attributes which saw her reach the final of the Dairy Innovator of the Year award at the British Farming Awards, co-organised by Farmers Guardian.
Molly’s family once owned and ran a large dairy herd, based in Warwickshire, but was sold in 2007.
“My father wanted to down size and we moved to a smallholding near Exmoor. But not all of the stock from the herd was sold,” explains Molly, who was just 14 at the time.
“I knew, even then, I wanted to continue working with dairy genetics. And my dad also wanted to continue the work we had started with our pedigree stock – just in a different way to what we had done before.”
Recalling their kitchen-table discussion to decide what the herd prefix should be, they were unable to use their family surname as another herd was using it.
“So we thought about Treehouse – we were at Treehouse Farm – but we decided that we wanted something ‘friendly’ which all people liked. What’s not to like about Pandas? They live in trees and they’re black and white, so we got there in the end.”
Molly’s path to pedigree dairy breeding began in 2002. Her elder sister, Amy, was breeding and showing Dexter cattle and Molly also began to take an interest in preparing cattle for the ring.
“I hung on, as younger sisters do, and helped out and found it all really fascinating and enjoyable. I also thought it would make sense to show some of our own Holstein cattle.”
It was late 2004 when her father, Andrew, bought her a Christmas present which would pave the way to the career and the success she is enjoying today. It was a four-month-old heifer calf – Honesberie Charles Gem – from Nigel Hollick’s Northamptonshire-based herd.
“She was out of the Gem cow family – a pedigree leading back to Canadian genetics with nine generations of VG and EX dams.
“And she grew up to be a tremendous cow, classifying VG86 in her first lactation. Today some of her great granddaughters are winning shows across the country,” says Molly.
Molly is now based in Chumleigh, in Devon, but she ventured abroad before returning to the family farm.
In 2007, aged 16, she took a job working with the world-renowned Morsan Holstein herd in Alberta, Canada.
“I was offered the job while I was still at school,” she recalls, adding that former rep Chris Parry had recommended her for the job.
At that time, the Morsan herd comprised about 2,000 cows with a separate barn for the top-end show cows and genomic animals.
Molly was responsible for the day-to-day care of the show cattle, helping to prepare for shows and sales and assisting with marketing.
“I loved it – I was there for four years and then I faced a tough decision. Stay in Canada or come home and restart a herd in the UK, using all the experience I had gained.
“I’m a farming and a family girl, so it was a no-brainer really. But knowing there were some Panda ‘seeds’ left at home to work with which also helped me to make a decision.”
Her first heifer – Honesberie Charles Gem – was being cared for by close family friend Anne Harrison, who owns the Bassingthorpe Holstein herd at Boothby Pagnell in Lincolnshire.
Molly also bought five embryos from the Fools Gold cow family to bring home with her from Canada. These were from Stoneden Fools Gold – one of the cows she had been working with out there.
“She wasn’t necessarily the best of the bunch, but I could see her potential. She’s a unique Variant Red Goldwyn daughter.”
Embryos were produced using Golden Oaks ST Alexander.
“I think he’s a stylish sire and the only thing which the Fools Gold cow family lacked, in my opinion, was finesse and leg quality. I’d seen some Alexander calves on the ground and thought he’d make a good match.”
All five embryos held and resulted in a red and white bull, a black and white bull and three heifers. “We got lucky,” says Molly.
“The red and white sire, Panda Redfactor Red, was taken by Cogent – our first bull to be snapped up by an AI company – and all three Fools Gold heifers classified well.
“They all performed well in the showring with national titles as calves, and two have since been sold to other renowned UK herds.”
Molly also had her first major string of show successes with two of the heifers – Panda Alexa Fools Gold and Panda Allyander Fools Gold. Between them they scooped first and second place in the calf championship classes at the Royal Bath and West, the Royal Three Counties, and the Livestock Event in 2012. As well as national titles, Alexa won the All Britain All Breeds Championship and Allyander took second place.
“That was the first time in history two full sisters had taken first and second place – and it was the icing on the cake of a successful year with our first batch of ET-bred stock.”
Molly’s second investment in embryos comprised four from the Regancrest Chassity cow family. These resulted in three calves – two heifers and one bull.
The bull was sold as a stock bull in 2013, topping the Genetic Elite Sale, and has since been classified EX90.
One heifer – Panda MS Chocolate Buttons – has just calved and was classified VG87 as a heifer.
“She is probably one of the most exciting two year olds we have at Panda. We’ve already had a lot of interest in her daughter and embryos.”
Her full-sister, Panda MS Chocolate Truffles, was sold to German breeder Nicky Nosbisch, who bought her at the Drakkar Sale in France in 2013.
“She was runner-up in Germany’s national Holstein championships in March 2016 and has been classified VG86 so far,” says Molly.
“She was the first animal we sold abroad – we had so much interest in her both from the UK and abroad that we thought it only fair we go to France to sell her. I would definitely sell through that sale again. It was a fantastic experience and great exposure for our herd.”
Exporting has continued, with more embryos sold abroad in 2015 and typically about 30 eggs are also sold from the nucleus herd each year.
“The flushing work I was involved with in Canada – about 30 cows a month – certainly helps with ET work here. I learnt so much about how to manage cows and heifers to prepare for a successful flushing. Nutrition in the run up to the procedure definitely makes a difference. We have had a lot of success thanks to the knowledge and experience.”
Today, Molly has a small herd of just three cows and turns about 30 recipients each year and between 15 and 20 elite pedigree show/genomic heifers or cows. These are housed in a new shed, which is similar in design to the one where Molly worked in Canada.
It features cameras within it allowing for easy observation of calving cows.
“But with such valuable stock, the cameras also add an element of security,” adds Molly.
“Cow comfort and ventilation are vital if we’re going to see good fertility. It’s also another ‘shop window’ for the herd – it’s where people come to view the herd. So they’ve got to look their best.”
Cow families in the herd now have something different to offer and developing the very best in genetics continues to remain her focus.
“We’re looking to develop unique genetics – something breeders can get excited about. But we’re also looking to produce cattle with good overall balance and substance. It’s not just about style. They also need functional traits like good udders and feet and legs.
“Breeders and producers are looking for the whole package – and so that’s what we are looking to breed,” she says, adding they are using genetics from Canada, the US and Europe.
“We have semen from all the AI companies in our tank.”
Looking forward, Molly says: “I’ve never had an ambition to milk a lot of cows – it’s more about having a small elite herd and focusing on genetics.
“I want to make the Panda prefix a global prefix, and one which is associated with offering the ‘whole package’ – that’s highly classified stock which rank well on the genomic base and perform in the milking herd.
“I’m addicted to dairy genetics – it’s all I ever wanted to do and I’m always ‘on’ and looking at what can be improved,” says Molly, who also works for Taunton-based breeding company Mastergen.
“Most people my age are looking to get a mortgage on a house to live in. I had to produce a five-year business plan and spent 18 months getting a mortgage to build a shed for my cows. I am extremely driven – cows come first.
“I use up all my holiday leave, mornings, evenings and weekends on this herd. It’s a way of life and it’s my dream.
And, ultimately, the aim is to develop the herd and its genetics into a full-time business.”