One of the younger exhibitors at Dairy Day is Mark Robinson who is making his debut in the event’s show ring. Neil Ryder reports.
As a teenager Mark Robinson once considered a career in professional golf, but instead trained in agriculture and joined his family’s dairy farming business in Nantwich, Cheshire.
This, in turn, led to an interest in Holstein genetics and showing cattle, with his next show ring appearance taking place at this year’s UK Dairy Day.
Show ring success so far this year has included the breed championship and reserve at Nantwich Show, as well as the breed title at Royal Cheshire Show.
He says representing Team GB in Colmar, France, earlier this year with his heifer, Woodhey Atwood Sally, has been the pinnacle of his showing accolade to date. However, he stresses these successes have only been possible from a strong commercial base.
The Robinson family moved from a farm near Winsford, Cheshire, to Woodhey Hall, Faddiley, Nantwich, 17 years ago in response to urban development encroaching on their Winsford farm.
They moved with about 300 dairy cattle which they ran as a commercial herd averaging 8,000 litres. After five years, they formed a contract farming agreement with a neighbouring dairy farm business, which entailed the purchase of 160 full pedigree Holstein milkers averaging around 10,000 litres. Milking continued on the existing two farms until 2012, when both herds were brought together to improve efficiencies.
During this time Mark had finished school and completed a three-year course at Reaseheath College, Nantwich, before returning home to farm with his father Paul and mother, Ruth. Now 27 years old, living with his partner Jocelyn, Mark became a director of the family business, Woodhey Dairies, five years ago. Apart from the family the business has four full-time employees.
The introduction of the pedigree milkers were a turning point for the direction of the herd. Mark says he found the yields these cows were achieving and general cow type highly desirable and this sparked his interest in pedigree Holsteins. It was this which would also lead to his passion for competing in the show ring.
“When I started showing in 2007 I was coming last or nearly last in every class I entered but each time I learned a little more and gradually I crept up the placings winning some firsts and now even some championships. I am lucky in that I have the support of my parents and the team here at Woodhey, plus a good friend Tom Lomas, who helps me prepare and show the cattle. It gives all of us a little boost when we win,” says Mark.
Woodhey Dairies now covers just over 405ha (1,000 acres) in a single block of land all grass apart from about 109ha (270 acres) maize and 51ha (125 acres) wheat. Wheat grain is milled and used for home feeding with the straw welcome for feed and bedding. As the dairy cattle are housed all year round, all the grassland is used for silage. Feeding is based on a grass and maize silage TMR ration, modified as necessary for different groups of cattle and supplemented by parlour fed concentrate.
The present dairy herd totals 640 cows with 500 followers. There are currently 550 animals milking three times a day, averaging 11,300 litres sold at 3.8 per cent fat and 3.1 per cent protein with a cell count of below 130,000.
“We are all year round calving with our milk being sold on a level supermarket contract.
“In 2012 we installed a new 64-point, fully computerised, rapid exit parlour. This now allows us to complete a milking in three hours including clearing and washing. Six months into our new parlour, we moved to three-times-a-day milking to increase yields and for better cow welfare, while enabling us to make better use of our investment”, explains Mark.
“The parlour has an American style underpass below the parlour, this allows noise levels to be kept low in the parlour as all milk metering and other equipment operate here” he says.
Mark has an ‘elite’ group, currently 32 strong, which he selects from for showing.
“I look for cattle which have show potential within the main herd for my elite group. Using sexed semen has allowed me to produce more females from the best cows in my herd, benefiting the herd in both the milk tank and the show ring.
“The show cattle are fed and managed slightly differently from the main herd being housed on deep sand beds instead of the mattresses used for the main herd and fed additional hay for rumen development. In the weeks running up to a show, we aim to develop a routine where there will be as little change as possible between moving from the farm to a show. They are like Olympic athletes and need additional care to compete in the ring,” he says.
Regarding breeding decisions, Mark selects a team of bulls in line with the herd’s goals, and makes bull selections based on each individual cow’s characteristics.
“The elite group are bred for show type. To me this means amazing udders with good attachment, wide square rumps, large body capacity, but still boasting plenty of femininity.
“For the rest of the herd we are breeding for more of a functional cow. She should still possess a solid udder and wide rump, but we are happy for these cows to be stronger and built for life in a large herd environment with large amounts of milk essential. Health traits are also heavily emphasised on, there is such a wide selection of bulls available these days there is no excuse for us not to be using a bull that isn’t positive for the traits we want.
“All bulls used are genomically tested, with very positive results being seen so far in the herd. As for cow family’s there are many different ones in the herd, such as the Adeens, Ambrosia, Roxy’s, Lustre’s, Destina (Raven) Spottie’s, Jennifer’s, Jazz and Pansy. All of these, we are keen to develop throughout the herd.
“Currently the best family we work with and have had most animals from are the Beattie’s. Now 100 per cent Holstein, they have British Friesian roots. These animals just seem to last forever, with most of our 100 tonne cows coming from that line. We currently have one that’s last three dams all made 100 tonnes of milk, and she is still working on her record so fingers crossed.” says Mark.
“Because we want to grow our herd, we currently retain all Holstein heifers born on the farm for replacements. The lower performing percentage of the herd are bred to British Blue sires and sold to Meadow Quality providing us with a good cash crop which we can reinvest in the business” says Mark.
Mark chooses his show cattle by eye, but his keen interest in superior dairy genetics and use of elite genetics has been fundamental in growing milk yields and improving herd health.
He is quick to say cow performance is dependent on both management and genetics, hand in hand; an animal can only perform to its true genetic ability if managed correctly.
“Growing the herd’s average yield from 8,000 to 11,300 litres is testament to this, our next short-term goal will be to achieve an average of 12,000 litres,” he adds.
Mark says his last goal was to win a class at National Calf Show, which I completed in 2015 and his next goal is to win a milking class at a national show such as UK Dairy Day or UK Dairy Expo
He adds: “A bigger goal is to return to the European Holstein Show in 2019 and succeed near the top end of the ring. It is the most amazing atmosphere I have ever seen, it is just electric.”