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UK Dairy Day preview: Red Ribbon seller profits from move to Brown Swiss

Insights
Brown Swiss may be relatively rare in the UK, but the breed’s versatility and high milk constituents means more producers could benefit from embracing them. And the Williams family, Carmarthen, has found success with them in the showring, too. Aly Balsom reports.
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It was the unusualness of the Brown Swiss which first attracted Sian and Mark Williams to the breed, but their interest in trying something different has also proved beneficial to overall herd performance.

Driven by a passion for genetics, the Holstein breeders took their first foray into the Brown Swiss about seven years ago. Since then, numbers have grown, with the pedigree herd now made up of about 50 Brown Swiss and 200 Holsteins.

With milk constituents becoming increasingly important to their milk contract, the Brown Swiss offered the Williams family the potential to up butterfats.



Breeding

They also created added breeding interest, show potential and were the right size to fit in the existing Holstein set-up. However, in the last two years the true potential of the breed in a commercial sense has become more evident following major changes in herd management at Clomendy Farm, Carmarthen.

This has involved upping cow numbers and moving from a medium input/output system, with cows at grass for half the year, to a high input/output system, with cows milked three times per day and housed all year.

Following increased milking frequency, the Brown Swiss were shown to respond better compared to the Holsteins, which Mrs Williams believes demonstrates the versatility of the breed.

She says: “The more you ask a Brown Swiss to do, the more she will perform. She will quite happily do 8,000 litres on grass but, equally, if you push her, she will respond well to it.”

After the move to three-times-per-day milking, the Holsteins increased yields by about 5kg per head/day, compared to 8kg in the Brown Swiss. At the same time, milk constituent levels dropped to a lesser degree in the Brown Swiss than the Holsteins. The Swiss now average 10,000kg/cow/year and the Holsteins, 12,000kg. The herd averages 3.95 per cent fat and 3.3 per cent protein.

Mrs Williams says the system overhaul was necessary to secure a sustainable future for the farm. “We had to either increase stocking rates and up yields or get out.”

In February 2013, in-parlour feeding was stopped and the herd moved to a total mixed ration to promote diet consistency and rumen health.



Diet

Moving cows inside also gave more control over diet. The ration is now made up of grass silage, straw, bread, a concentrate blend, protected fat, palm fat, minerals and bicarb.

Having originally been focused on grazing management, the family has continued with their attitude to producing and feeding quality forage, but this time in the form of conserved grass silage.

Mr Williams says: “The more milk you get off forage, the cheaper it is to produce. Our aim is to make high quality silage and feed this alongside the appropriate blend. We use grass silage as the starting point – this year we have tested silage every two weeks.”

To produce a young, leafy crop, grass cutting frequency has been increased from three to four cuts a year, with a five-week gap between cuts, versus six to eight weeks in the past. Rather than cutting all fields at once, they choose to cut specific fields when they are ready. Silage typically averages 26 per cent dry matter, 12MJ ME and 16 per cent protein.

Mrs Williams says: “It does feel like we do silage all summer, but it is worth it. It is better than cutting it all at once as this can compromise quality and you can make a mess of the land.”

To further boost herd performance, they have also invested in a new 150-cow capacity cubicle shed which the milking herd went into on New Year’s Eve. A new 26:26 parlour also came into use in March.

“The investment was made with full awareness of the milk price crash. We anticipated the milk price and budgeted for it. It is not ideal, but it is not a shock,” says Mrs Williams.



Comfort

The open-sided cow building has been designed with comfort in mind, featuring plenty of walkways and loafing space. Triple-layer mattresses with sawdust have been put in, and outside facing feed passages provide 0.64 metres (2.1ft) of feed space per cow.

A robot feed pusher has also recently been installed, anticipating this will lead to improved intakes and a yield response of one-litre/cow/day.

In fact, the family has already witnessed a two-litre/cow/day increase from moving into the new shed. This is in addition to a two-litre/cow/day increase from moving into the new parlour, due to reduced standing times.

Over the years, Mr Williams has been committed to producing a quality, medium-sized herd of cows which will put milk in the tank. Generally, the pedigree aspect of the business has been for general satisfaction, rather than big income, with showing representing an enjoyable activity the whole family can enjoy.



Type

About 15 per cent of the Holsteins are red, with the herd including three main Holstein families – the Kandy, Sherry and Rapsody families. Mr Williams selects about 30 Holstein bulls a year which are used for corrective mating on cows.

He says: “At the moment we are selecting on type, rather than milk, as we have focused on milk for a few years. I try to select in the top 2 per cent for type.”

The family has had a strong presence on the show circuit for some years. Overall, one of their standout Holstein cows was Lyganlan Zenith Kandy which won best exhibitor-bred cow at the Royal Welsh in 2008. She produced 12,170kg in her best lactation.

Although the Holsteins have traditionally formed the primary focus for showing, in recent years the Brown Swiss have somewhat taken over.

 

Farm facts

Farm facts
  • 73 hectares (180 acres) on the home farm, plus 36ha (90 acres) rented ground, all of which is grassland
  • Mark Williams farms in partnership with his parents Malcolm and Glenys
  • Staff include one part-time and two relief milkers, plus family
  • Three milkings, at 4am, midday and 8pm
  • Shed lights on timers to provide 200lux for 18 hours
  • All replacements home-bred and reared by heifer rearer
  • Average age at first calving is 23-25 months for Holsteins, 25-27 months in Brown Swiss
  • 121 of the 206 cows in-milk are heifers
  • 46 per cent of cows are classified Ex
  • Heifers naturally served
  • Average SCC of 145-150
  • 405-day average calving interval
  • Supplies DairyCrest

Brown Swiss success

Brown Swiss success

The family started with Brown Swiss by buying an embryo and, since then, have been increasing numbers by buying milkers and in-calf heifers. Up until recently, animals have been sourced from the Quarry Herd.


Mrs Williams says: “We try and buy from good, pure import families. We tend to go for leaner cows as, on the system we have, they can gain weight easily and it is hard to lose it. We also like two generations of decent families behind them.”

 

Selection

Careful selection has led to the family having much success on the show circuit.


Most notably, this has included the title of reserve inter-breed champion at this year’s Royal Welsh Show, with home-bred cow Elite WR Lovely. She has had a run of successes, including All Britain champion Brown Swiss as a heifer last year.


Following on from this, Lovely will be heading to this year’s UK Dairy Day at Telford, where the family will be putting her up for auction at the Red Ribbon sale.


Mrs Williams says: “It is a difficult decision to make because she is so good, but we want to show people how good the breed is.


“She is a tremendous framed animal with an incredible udder. As a heifer she gave 11,226kg at 3.9 per cent fat and 3.41 per cent protein.”


Overall, the Brown Swiss breed has improved markedly in recent years, particularly in relation to udder quality. She also believes the fact they can fit in different systems and are known for high milk constituents means there is potential for them to be used more extensively in the UK, either pure or as a cross.


Protein

“I think there is definitely more room for Brown Swiss to be used in commercial herds. The way milk contracts are going at the moment, white water contracts are a rarity and processors are looking for fat and protein.


“The Brown Swiss are an even match to Holsteins in every way,” she says.

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