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The importance of genetics at Gold Cup-winning farm

An NMR/RABDF Gold Cup winner has increased cow numbers to 1,830 since winning the award as an 80-cow herd, but it is not just a numbers game for the family, as the name is synonymous with some of the most influential cow families. Debbie James reports.

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The George family (left to right, back row) Rowland, James, Charles and Michael; (front row) Sharon and Jill.
The George family (left to right, back row) Rowland, James, Charles and Michael; (front row) Sharon and Jill.
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The importance of genetics at Gold Cup-winning farm

Achieving high levels of fertility in cows which produce average annual yields of 13,000 litres is challenging, but the George family is achieving that through a focus on breeding, herd management, nutrition and heat detection.

 

Their two herds, at Brynhyfryd Farm, Wolfscastle, and at nearby Sealyham, Pembrokeshire, are fully housed and milked three times-a-day.

 

Cows are milked through two 40:40 herringbone parlours, with milkings at 3.30am, 11.30am and 7.30pm. Improvements in performance have been gained since the herd stopped grazing.

 

The calving interval has fallen to 375 days, pregnancy rates have risen to 28-30% and yields have grown to 13,000 litres at Brynhyfryd and 12,000 litres at Sealyham, all while expanding cow numbers.

 

Michael George says: “A housed system suits our type of cow.”

 

It is a very different system to the one his parents, Colin and Enid, had when they won the NMR/RABDF Gold Cup in 1978 when they were milking 80 British Friesians.

 

Michael says: “I was brought up on a farm which was totally reliant on selling bulls and female stock. Our parents were completely dedicated to breeding a wonderful herd of cows.”

 

A combination of factors led to a shift in focus: Michael and his brother Rowland both came home to farm, there have been opportunities to buy more land and bovine TB has prevented the sale of pedigree stock.

 

Expansion came when Sealyham Farm was purchased in 1978 and a second herd established there four years later.

 

Michael says: “We never really had a plan to expand the herd to 1,850 cows. The only plan was to never stand still.”


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Michael, his wife Jill and their youngest son Charles run the herd at Brynhyfryd, while the herd at Sealyham Farm is run by Rowland, his wife Sharon, and Michael and Jill’s eldest son James.

 

The daily management of the herds are James and Charles’ responsibility.

 

New genetics were introduced in the 1980s, firstly using part-bred Holstein sires and then pure-breds, with 60 animals imported from Canada.

 

This resulted in a larger cow type with a ‘great will to milk off bigger intakes’, says Michael.

 

He says: “The Friesian is a wonderful cow for living off grass, but for us they would not put milk in the jar.”

 

When Colin died in 1993, aged 55, he left a legacy which shaped the national herd. Bulls he had bred were being used by artificial insemination companies.

 

He also had notable success in the showring and, after his death, Michael and Rowland wanted to follow his lead. They did so with great success, winning supreme champion at the Welsh Dairy Show in 1994 and 1998 and at the Royal Show in 2000 and many other awards.

 

In 2001, they sold several animals to farmers restocking after foot-and-mouth, but the following year their own business came under pressure from disease, this time bovine TB.

 

It was 15 years before the herd went clear and the respite in 2017 was short-lived as another breakdown followed.

 

But the burden of TB has now been removed as the herd tested clear in June 2020.

 

To prevent interactions with wildlife, only in-calf heifers are turned out to grass.

 

Intakes now come from producing top quality grass silage from 526 hectares (1,300 acres), together with 202ha (500 acres) of maize.

 

Michael says: “Our system is driven by increasing milk litres and keeping feed costs down. To achieve this we are driven to make top quality forage.”

 

A multi-cut silage system introduced three years ago is resulting in forage with a minimum of 11 ME, 17% protein and a D-value of more than 70.

 

The first cut is taken on April 20 and every 30 days after that. There are mostly five cuts-a-year, sometimes six.

Multi-cut has had an ‘amazing impact’ on milk yields, says Michael, but it is not an easy option.

 

“I would not go back to a three-cut system, but it can be difficult to keep up with all the cuts if you have a difficult spell of weather.

 

“It is more expensive per tonne of dry matter because you are covering ground more often but we are getting more production from it.”

Calves are housed in igloos in groups of 18.
Calves are housed in igloos in groups of 18.

Compound feeds are fed to the 3,600 animals. Straights, including rape, brewers’ grains, wheat, barley, ground maize and soya hulls, are bought-in and fed through a self-propelled feeder wagon.

 

Although the machine was a significant investment, it has increased average daily milk yields by one litre/cow.

 

Nutritionist Tim Davies, of Kite Consulting, has been monitoring the diet for four years with regular visits to the farms.

 

The high input high output system requires a high level of staffing. There are 20 full-time employees and five part-timers.

 

Michael says: “The success of what we do is down to the staff, as the workforce is the most important thing in any business.”

 

The Georges have been using genomics to breed for fertility to improve the genetic ability of the herd to reproduce.

 

Michael says: “We went down the genomics route six years ago to improve the commercial aspect of the herd and we now have highly fertile cows which give lots of milk.

 

“Until then we had cows which produced milk but we could not get them in-calf. With good management and genomics, even with high yields, we can now do this.”

 

Genomic testing is not carried out on the herd. “When you have high genetics in the herd there is less benefit in testing because you do not have that range between the top and bottom animals,” says Michael.

 

Heifers are inseminated with sexed semen and a 55% conception rate is achieved. Some sexed semen is also used on the first calvers.

 

Some of the best females in the herd are from the cows imported from Canada in the 1980s; progeny of Maureen, Hester May, Lausine and Idella.

 

Michael says: “We are seeing the performance and strength in those females coming through 17 generations later.”

 

He says the Holstein was criticised for being high maintenance and short-lived, but adds that everything which needed to be corrected has now been done.

 

“Wherever you go cows are good and that is testament to improvements in the Holstein breed.”

The system is driven by increasing milk litres and keeping feed costs down.
The system is driven by increasing milk litres and keeping feed costs down.

The business uses the Genus RMS system for breeding, supported by weekly vet visits. Cows are fitted with pedometers to monitor heats.

 

Synchronisation is used to get the right number of animals in calf every week. Breeding selections are oriented towards the right type of cow for the system, with high production and good health traits. James and Charles have the job of making those choices.

 

Charles says: “We like to breed animals with lots of dairy strength, which are wide-chested, not too tall, with good udders, legs and feet.”

 

Their choices have been validated, as in 2018 the Brynhyfryd herd was named by Holstein International as having the highest number of active excellent cows in the world, with 233 EX cows.

 

Calves are reared at Brynhyfryd and are transferred to a third unit, South Leys, at five months old.

 

Michael says: “Youngstock rearing is a job in itself. Between both herds we have an average of 40 calves born each week.”

 

Every calf receives colostrum within two hours of birth and are housed in individual pens for a week. They are then transferred to igloos in groups of 18 and fed calf milk replacer through an automatic feeder.

 

Weaning takes place at eight weeks and a ration of ad-lib coarse mix and haylage is fed. At five months, they get a total mixed ration of silage, straw and home-made blend.

 

Fertility collars are fitted at 12.5 months and the first service is at 13 months, with all heifer insemination done in-house.

 

During the grazing season, when a pregnancy diagnosis confirms a heifer is in-calf, she is turned out to pasture until two months before she calves, when she is housed and introduced to a pre-calving diet.

 

Heifers calve at an average of 23 months.

 

The accounts of the business are reviewed monthly to establish what is working and what is not.

 

Michael says: “We are not the sort of people who think everything we do is right, but neither do we think that everything we do is wrong. Whatever we do, our goal is to do it better.”

Farm facts:

  • 890 hectares (2,200 acres) of owned and rented land farmed
  • 900 milkers and 100 dry cows at Brynhyfryd Farm
  • 750 milkers and 80 dry cows at Sealyham
  • 1,250 heifers at five months old or older at Southleys Farm
  • 450 heifer calves at the main units
  • 3.8% butterfat and 3.3% protein
  • Milk sold to Dairy Partners
  • Cell counts running at 150,000-200,000 cells/ml
  • Cows housed on sand with some far-off dry cows housed on mattresses and sawdust
  • Aberdeen-Angus beef calves sold at three weeks
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