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Royal Highland Show 2018: Longevity is focus for Fife dairy family

Dairy Shorthorn cattle play an important role within one Friesian dairy herd in Fife, while also providing the Lawson family with chance to indulge in their hobby of showing with great success. Erika Hay reports.

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Adam Lawson, who farms 121 hectares (300 acres) at North Cassingray, Largoward, with his dad Basil, had his most successful Royal Highland Show last year, winning champion, reserve and honourable mention with his team of Dairy Shorthorns.

 

He was also delighted to receive the John Miller Perpetual Challenge Trophy for the best stockman in the dairy cattle section.

 

Basil, wife Margaret and Adam moved to Fife in December 2001 from Northern Ireland and brought their Lismulligan herd of Friesians and a few Dairy Shorthorns with them.

 

They have resisted the temptation to introduce Holstein blood, as they are strong believers the lifetime yield of a cow is the most important factor, not the annual yield. They have had several cows over the years which have given more than 100 tonnes of milk.

 

Adam says: “Lifetime yield is what is important. I expect a cow to produce 50 tonnes of milk by her sixth or seventh lactation, then I know she has paid for herself.”

 

He says Friesians and Dairy Shorthorns are the ‘easy-care’ breeds of the dairy world, as they make the most of a forage-based diet, easily keep to a tight calving interval and seldom have feet problems, despite their longevity.

 

Adam says: “We installed a new 16/32 Boumatic parlour in 2016, along with investing in electronic collars for cows, which detect both heat and rumination activity. This has helped us reduce calving interval by 10 days to 374.”

Numbers

 

Dairy Shorthorn numbers have increased in the herd since last year, when Adam bought several animals from the dispersal sales of well known herds, such at John Teasdale’s Brafell herd, David Dent’s Winbrook herd and Steven Girvan’s Bishopsbrae herd.

 

Sadly, this means there are fewer exhibitors in the classes, but Adam took a team of nine cattle to the Royal Highland Show last year to support it and plans to do the same again this year.

 

He has also been actively encouraging other breeders to return to showing there, as well as potential new ones. The number of booked stalls is up to 25 this year.

 

Adam says: “Shorthorn exhibitors at the Royal Highland Show all enjoy working together as a team. When washing cattle, they start from one end of the stalls and work towards the other end, while some of the team muck out and rebed stalls.

Showcase

 

“We all want to promote the breed, as well as our own herds, and although we all hope to win, we are happy as long as the best animal wins and a great showcase has been put on.”

 

Winbrook Vi 143 took the championship in 2017 as a third-calver, having been purchased as a freshly calved heifer in November 2014. It calved in October last year and is heading back to Ingliston this year with a score of 94 and projected to yield 8,500kg.

 

Adam says: “We have stayed traditional with our Dairy Shorthorns and not diluted the pure blood. Vi is a good example; she is by Marleycote Thunder and her bull calf born in October by Hooton Envoy has already attracted the interest of Shorthorn Sires UK for semen marketing.”

 

The Dairy Shorthorns fit in well with the Friesian herd, being hardy enough to withstand being turned out on fields which rise to 183 metres (600ft) above sea level at North Cassingray.

 

They are all on the same forage-based ration of grass or silage, with each cow receiving about 1.5 tonnes of dairy cake per year and a little buffer feed through summer.

 

The new parlour has helped to control feed amounts better with lead feeding in early lactation and feed to yield after service.

 

Dairy farmers are continually having to tighten their belts and reduce their cost of production, which is why Adam believes there is a place for Dairy Shorthorn and Friesians. He pointed out that due to their longevity, he has less demand for replacement heifers and, therefore, has many more to sell at Carlisle where they are always in demand. This year, for the first time, he plans to sell surplus Shorthorn heifers separately at a dedicated breed sale at Penrith in August.

 

Cast cows from the herd are worth more too, selling to Highland Meats, Saltcoats, with mostly O-grades. There is also a good demand in Carlisle for Lismulligan Friesian bulls.

Sales

 

Adam sells about eight a year both privately and at April and September sales. He has sold to a top of £5,000 in the past and, more recently, to £4,000 twice.

 

Bull calves are also much in demand. Red and whites are particularly popular with local suckled calf producers as replacements for lost calves, although many are more than happy to take black and white calves too.

 

Adam says: “This spring, we only have two bull calves left which we kept for breeding, as the rest have gone to be fostered at £150/head.”

 

Remaining bull calves are kept entire and finished at 14 to 15 months old on ad-lib. Most make O+ and R grades and average 320kg deadweight. This year, they have been coming to good money, with prices nearing £4/kg.

 

Adam says: “I have worked out each bull calf sold is worth the equivalent of 2p/kg on a 7,000kg cow and a heifer calf 4-5p/kg. I am glad not to have to rely solely on the milk cheque, as even though we are on a Sainsbury’s contract through Muller, we are constantly being squeezed to become more efficient and reduce costs. Producing milk now is not so much about gaining bonuses, but more about avoiding penalties.”

 

Heifers calve as close to two years old as possible and Adam finds their milk yield peaks at the fourth lactation and stays at that level until the seventh or eighth lactation.

 

He says: “Nearly all cows will pass 50,000 litres in their lifetime and both the Dairy Shorthorns and Friesians regularly do 70,000-80,000 litres, with no foot, fertility or udder problems, which is why we have steered clear of Holstein blood.”

 

There are no classes in Scotland for Friesian cattle, so apart from a calf for seven-year-old son Ruaridh to show in young handlers, all the showing Adam does is with the Dairy Shorthorns and, surprisingly, some Belted Galloways.

 

Adam has been an enthusiast of the breed since he was 18 and is currently chairman of the Belted Galloway Cattle Society. He has 12 cows under the Mourneview prefix and his two-year-old heifer was champion at Fife show recently.

 

Champion

 

At the Royal Highland, however, he concentrates on Dairy Shorthorns which he has been showing there since 2003, taking champion twice; in 2009, with Lisnamulligan Princess Anne and, last year, with Winbrook Vi 143.

 

Much of the team heading to Edinburgh this year are from the home-bred Lisnamulligan Lady Barrington line. Adam is helped at shows by Ruaridh, who is very keen, and Ailsa and Nyomi, who have been coming to the farm for years to help turn out the show cattle. Local boy Craig Campbell does the afternoon milking to let Basil come to the show. Adam’s wife Claire and their other two children – Orlaith, five, and Struan, almost two – come to support.

 

While not busy on-farm, at shows or with his young family, Adam finds time to spend fighting the corner for the British Friesian breed as chairman of the British Friesian Breeders’ Club.

 

He says: “It is important bloodlines are not lost in the general black and white classification, as the breed offers different genetics and traits which are key to their success and profitability as commercial dairy cattle.

 

“Dairy Shorthorns are in a stronger position with their own herd book, but we have to encourage more dairy farmers to include them in their herds.

 

“It is important big showcase events, such as the Royal Highland Show, keep classes for smaller breeds such as Dairy Shorthorn, so people can see and learn about the benefits of temperament, hardiness and longevity.”

Facts

  • 300 cows: 80 per cent Friesian; 20 per cent Dairy Shorthorn
  • Average yield of 7,000kg at 4.1 per cent butterfat and 3.4 per cent protein
  • Calving interval of 374 days
  • All cows fed a forage based diet plus 1.5 tonnes of dairy cake/cow/year
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