While the Dairy Shorthorn may not match its black and white counterparts in terms of pure milk production, the breed has much to commend it in terms of ease of management and a solid market for calved heifers and surplus bull calves as Neil Ryder found out when he visited a Cumbrian herd.
While sales of top quality pedigree calved heifers and premium milk production are very much complementary to each other, the Winbrook pedigree Dairy Shorthorn herd is also drawing solid prices for its surplus male calves and heifers not suitable for pedigree breeding.
This, says the herd’s owner, David Dent of Winton House, Winton near Kirkby Stephen, Cumbria, means that his faith in the breed is fully justified and that, while the Dairy Shorthorn remains a niche breed, its attributes are being reflected in solid prices at breed society sales. He says buyers include those with Holstein herds, probably attracted by the use of red Holstein blood in the development of the modern Dairy Shorthorn breed.
While the Winbrook herd goes back to 1961 when Mr Dent’s parents, George and Ella Dent moved in with 20 Northern Dairy Shorthorn Cows and 40 sheep. However, the family’s links with the Dairy Shorthorn are believed to go back much further, at least 100 years.
Mr Dent farms with his wife, Julie, on 47 hectares (115 acres) of owned land plus 8ha (20 acres) rented land which adjoins the owned land. Some rented summer gazing may be taken if available.
He says: “I would find it hard to manage without the help of our loyal casual labour helpers including our weekend relief milkers.”
The land is a free draining sandy loam with small patches of heavier land all down to long-term, mostly permanent pasture, with limited grassland improvement work relying on direct drilling into existing pasture. Most of the land is about 168m (550ft) above sea level.
Mr Dent says: “We rely mainly on farmyard manure and slurry to keep the grass growing with only limited use of fertiliser. First cut silage areas get 70kg nitrogen fertiliser per acre and second cut about 50kg NPK compound fertiliser per acre. The farm has only limited slurry storage, but this is not a problem as we are not in an NVZ and can get on the land all year round.
“Usually we take about 65 acres first cut silage in the first week in June and 50 acres second cut clamp silage, plus about 10 acres big bale haylage which is valuable for buffer feeding.”
A major turning point came when almost all the original Winton Dairy Shorthorn herd was lost in the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak At that time the farm was running 180 cattle including 70 milkers which were all lost, but fortunately 39 in-calf and bulling heifers were on land a few miles away from the home unit and survived to provide the foundation of the present herd. Since then a conscious decision was made to cut back on cow numbers while building pedigree stock sales.
Currently the Winton herd is based on 45-50 milkers calving from April to November, with as many calvings as possible taking place outside. The most recent NMR figures based on 50 cows gives an average of 6,965kg milk at 4.06 per cent fat and 3.33 per protein. Along with a number of other farmers in the area, milk is sold to First Milk on a Nestle contract. The milk is used in the production of cappuccino coffee powder with the emphasis on consistency of protein production.
“About half our farm profit, and in some years as much as 60 per cent, comes from the sale of high quality, freshly calved pedigree Shorthorn cows and heifers mainly through breed society sales. The milking herd is essential to producing these heifers as well as giving us production figures to back these sales up.
“We calve heifers at about two-and-a-half years of age to enable them to be of a good size for sale and, with Dairy Shorthorns, to give them the ability to continue to grow during their first lactations. Many calvings are also timed to have heifers ready for key sales. Milk is important as now buyers expect Dairy Shorthorn heifers to be averaging 6,000 kg milk in their first lactation. Our heifer that was champion at Penrith last year sold to a black and white herd going on to give more than 7,000 litres.
“Our winter feeding is simple, just silage and cake fed in the parlour roughly according to yield. It works out at about 1.7 tonnes cake per cow per year. We will also buffer feed with big bale haylage as needed to provide additional fibre and encourage appetite.
“In some ways I think the Dairy Shorthorn has suffered a little in the past by being seen as a dual-purpose dairy and beef breed.
“However we have no problem selling surplus bull calves at £150 apiece. A local farm shop welcomes some of our heifers not needed for pedigree breeding as beef for the shop, also Dairy Shorthorn heifers sell well as replacement suckler beef dams,” he says.
“In the 1960s many people went out of Dairy Shorthorns. My father bred Northern Dairy Shorthorns until the early 1970s but there were major problems in finding Northern Dairy Shorthorn bulls and he moved on to Dairy Shorthorns. In the 1980s other bloodlines including Red and White Holsteins, Red and White Friesians, and Swedish Reds and Whites were used.
“The Red and White Holstein was always a good cross on the Dairy Shorthorn and one of the major things in bringing the Dairy Shorthorn back into the limelight and without doubt important in modernising the breed.
“In our own Winton herd we are careful to keep at least 75 per cent pure Dairy Shorthorn blood in our cattle to retain good legs, strength and longevity. High health is very important to us and, apart from routine calls, we very rarely need a visit from our vet and never need a foot trimmer. We also make sure that we see all our cattle twice-a-day.
“We pride ourselves in being known in the Dairy Shorthorn breed for selling high quality pedigree animals that will leave us with happy customers who hopefully will return to buy from us again,” he says.
Apart from promoting their cattle, showing has always played an important part in the life of the Dent family, though now is largely restricted to Penrith, Westmorland, Appleby and Great Yorkshire events, bringing home a crop of leading trophies. There are also pre-sale show awards from Society sales at Chelford, Beeston and Penrith.
Mr Dent says: “In theory losing the main herd in 2001 would have given us the chance to change breeds, but the Dairy Shorthorn has always worked well for us and we know the breed well so it was an easy decision to stay with the breed. In any case if we had gone to Holsteins we would have had to replace all our cubicles and enlarge the milking parlour.
“A farm like this with 50 milkers is now too small to be viable for anyone wanting to come into the industry. In our own case we own the farm with virtually all the investment needed now complete. I am now 57 and both our daughters have careers outside farming, so we will not be looking to make any further major investment in the farm.
“The Dairy Shorthorn works well for us as we have the milk sales, pedigree stock sales, and good calf prices so do not have all our eggs in one basket. If, at some stage, we decided to stop milking I suppose heifer rearing would be one alternative. For the moment though, I want to keep improving our breeding and to have the satisfaction of selling good quality stock to happy customers.”