Returning to milk production at Dovecote Farm has meant a switch to Jersey cows and a new passion for the Richardson family. Chloe Palmer finds out more.
When their Holstein herd was sold in 2005, the Richardson family made the decision to diversify into what quickly became a thriving cattery business. Maurice and Hazel Richardson had no regrets about their change in direction, but the next generation of the family had different ideas.
Maurice and Hazel Richardson’s children, Rachel, John and Matthew, all gained valuable work experience with Joseph Dickinson on his neighbouring Tyers Hall Farm.
The farm runs a pedigree Jersey herd across 200 hectares (494 acres) and is one of 16 dedicated Jersey herds supplying the Dickinson’s Longley Farm Dairy, near Huddersfield.
It was this link with the Dickinsons and Jerseys which was to influence the decision to recommence milk production at Dovecote Farm.
Rachel says: “I was offered a job at Tyers Hall, but said I wanted my own cows to produce milk for Longley Farm.
“I thought we should try with our own herd as otherwise we might have always wondered what could have been.
“Joseph decided to offer a contract to us and we were in the right place at the right time.”
Beef calves require individual attention and are fed accordingly. In 2011, the family bought 100 pedigree calves from two herds.
The milking herd is fed on a diet ration of wholecrop and silage.
Before the ink had dried on the supply contract, the family began making enquiries about where they could buy-in pedigree Jerseys. Maurice and Hazel were supportive of the brave move made by their children and were pleased with their decision.
Maurice says: “There have been dairy cows on this farm since the 1930s, so it was good to have them back here. We installed a new parlour in 1995 and it was in good working order, so we did not need a huge amount of investment to start milking again.”
As for the change to Jerseys, it seems this has been positively received by all the family.
Hazel says: “The Jerseys are part of the family – they are interesting cows to have around as they all have different characters. We find they are not as stressful to work with and we can keep more of them with less staff.”
In 2011, the Richardsons purchased 100 pedigree Jersey calves from two different herds.
Rachel says: “We wanted calves because we were keen to rear them ourselves so they could adjust to our system. We wanted to serve them with sires of our choice.”
The first batch of calves was served at 14 months and Rachel believes calving at two years works well for their system.
She says: “We have stuck with this date for first service because we find cows milk better when they calve at two years. Although they are smaller initially, they soon grow on and develop into a superior cow.”
The minimal value of Jersey bull calves means sexed semen is used for every first service on cows and heifers. Conventional semen is used for second service and until recently, a Hereford sweeper bull was used.
Maurice says: “We had a camera in the calving shed before with the Holstein herd, but now we have Jerseys, we no longer need it because they never require assistance.”
All calves are reared separately in hutches until weaning at eight weeks old.
Rachel says: “We find Jersey calves need individual attention and keeping them in hutches means we can feed them accordingly. Once they are weaned, they go into small, similar-aged groups where they are fed hay and a rearer nut.”
Herd health has always been a high priority for the farm and the Richardsons have implemented a regular screening programme for Johne’s disease and also vaccinate for IBR, Leptosporidium and BVD.
Maurice and Hazel are happy to leave the day-to-day management of the Jersey herd to their son Matt and daughter Rachel, while eldest son John manages the arable enterprise.
Rachel says: “It works well because we all have our own responsibilities, so we do not get under each other’s feet.”
Rachel recently began a new job as herd manager at Tyers Hall Farm, working for the Dickinson family, after working as field officer for the Jersey Cattle Society.
Matt is in charge of running the dairy herd and makes the management decisions. Cattle are turned out from the beginning of April until mid-October, but continue to come in at nights when they are buffer-fed silage.
The farm is in a low rainfall area, receiving just 600mm of rain, so grass is tight over summer.
Matt says: “This year, we are zero-grazing some of the fields we would normally take a third cut of silage from, and so far it is working very well.
“We try to be as self-sufficient as possible, so we minimise the amount of concentrate we have to buy-in.
“The winter ration comprises grass silage, fodder beet and wholecrop peas and barley, which is all grown on-farm. We add a little bought-in maize and feed a small amount of concentrate in the parlour.”
About 57ha (140 acres) of winter wheat is part of the arable enterprise
Herd health has always been a high priority for the farm and the Richardsons have implemented a regular screening programme for Johne's disease and also vaccinate for IBR, lestospirosis and BVD
It is clear the arable enterprise and the dairy cows are complementary as bedding muck provides valuable nutrients and organic matter to arable land.
Grass is integral to the arable rotation and establishing two year leys of Italian rye-grass between cereals provides impressive yields of high energy silage and a break crop essential to the control of black-grass.
Matt says: “After we finish lifting fodder beet in February, we drill a spring crop of peas and barley together. We have a short window to harvest peas and beans as wholecrop and clamp it just before we start combining winter barley at the end of July.”
This high protein feed has proved palatable and is well-suited to the soil type at Dovecote Farm, whereas lucerne did not yield well and is no longer grown.
Although each member of the family fulfils a separate role, when it comes to showing, it is very much a joint effort. Showing cattle runs deep in the veins of the Richardson family, says Maurice.
“My father and I began showing cattle in 1956. Our most famous cow, Gilbrook Citation Periwinkle, won inter-breed champion in 1981 and 1982 at the Great Yorkshire Show.
“She was one of the first cows to be bred using embryo transfer and we had 32 calves from her. She is buried in the garden.”
Showing Jersey cows was not the original intention, says Rachel, but it has proved a fulfilling venture for the family.
She says: “We bought calves as commercial animals and we have never selected for the showring. Show cows are treated exactly the same as the rest of the herd.”
Despite this, success has come early to the herd, and this year was the first time the family won with a home-bred cow, when Gilbrook Ballard won the inter-breed champion and breed champion at Newark Show.
The enthusiasm for the showring is evident, but will not distract Rachel and Matt from their main focus.
Rachel says: “Our cows must be correct and produce milk to meet the contract specification. We want a solid cow with good legs, feet and udders. We are looking for dairy quality and a cow which will produce at least four calves.”
Looking to the future, Rachel has her eye on expansion, and would like to further consolidate the family’s credentials as a breeder of pedigree Jerseys.
She says: “We are still learning so much about Jerseys and we have a long way to go. I hope we will be in a situation where we will have surplus animals to sell to pedigree and commercial producers.
“We are limited in terms of the time we have available, because we do not wish to employ anyone. We will not be in a position to produce more milk until we have the contract to buy it, but I hope we will be able to increase the herd size in time.”