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Behind the scenes with show-stopping legend

Many will know the Tomlinsons through their show-stopping cow Sandyford Clover 10, but at home the family has had its setbacks which it has had to struggle to overcome. Jonathan Wheeler reports.

Deborah and Blaise Tomlinson now farm at Nanpantan, Leicestershire.
Deborah and Blaise Tomlinson now farm at Nanpantan, Leicestershire.

You can tell how dedicated the Tomlinson family is to its Ayrshire cows – they placed building new accommodation for their Sandyford herd ahead of building themselves a farmhouse when they moved to Charnwood Forest Farm in 2007.

In the early years, while the cows benefited from rapidly expanding accommodation, Blaise and Deborah Tomlinson and their elder daughters Evie and Millie lived in two caravans.


They only moved into their farmhouse late in 2010 – just in time for the arrival of their youngest daughter Annabelle.


The Tomlinsons felt constrained by their original farm, positioned in the hills above Rochdale, Lancashire, which received 80ins (2032mm) of rain a year. That was ideal for growing four cuts of silage, but meant the farm was often so wet they could not harvest it easily. They also had insufficient space in which to put their plans to expand their 120- strong herd into action.


Charnwood Forest Farm, Nanpantan, Leicestershire, is very different. The farm is mainly loamy soils over granite (the forest is pockmarked with exhausted and existing granite quarries), has 30ins (762mm) a year rainfall and – most importantly for their ambitions – has a lot more space for expansion.


While the farmstead was small and had no house when they arrived, they have embarked on a virtually continuous building programme since they arrived, so it can now accommodate the entire 300 herd and followers.

Image: daughters

Left to right: Daughters Annabelle, Millie and Evie Tomlinson.

Charnwood Forest Farm

The Tomlinson family is considering farmgate sales to help boost income.


They own a block of 120 acres of grassland around the farmstead which is used primarily for grazing, and have another 440 acres of rented land – all within a mile of the farmstead – on which they produce silage and forage maize.


They initially expanded the herd by bringing in animals from other herds – 40 from one in Gloucestershire and 40 more from another in Derbyshire. But plans were brought to a halt when – in 2011 – they went down with TB, losing more than 200 of their 300 animals. It is believed the disease was brought back to the farm by youngstock reared away from home.


“We had just expanded the herd, put in a new parlour and bulk tank and developed some new buildings, and three months later TB struck,” explains Blaise.


One thing they noted was while their own animals – which had never lived in an area with TB issues – succumbed to the disease, they barely lost any of the Gloucestershire or Derbyshire animals.


“We only lost one cow from each consignment, which made us wonder whether they had some form of immunity or resistance to it,” says Blaise. They were confident the farm and the region – and its wildlife – were clean, and decided the best way to ensure that remained the case was to completely isolate the herd in the buildings until they ‘went clear’.


“We had no problems with TB at this farm before – not so much as an inconclusive test. We knew it had come in with returning youngstock rather than from local wildlife, so we isolated our cattle to ensure they did not pass it on.”


While the loss of more than 200 prime pedigree cattle was a serious personal blow, the lost income from milk also strained their finances.


Milking herd image

The Tomlinsons now have a 300-strong milking herd with a big crop of heifers due to join it this autumn.

“One of the biggest issues was that the compensation in no way matched the value of the animals we lost, let alone the cost of replacing them with animals of similar quality. I went out to markets looking for Ayrshire cattle to buy and found I had to spend twice as much to get animals of the right quality.”


In the year it took until they ‘went clear’ again, they could not restock. Their first purchases thereafter were 40 Ayrshires from a herd in Derbyshire and 55 blackand- white animals from the Netherlands.


They built the Ayrshire herd back up using sexed semen and now have a 300- strong milking herd with a big crop of heifers due to join it this autumn. Calving is all year round with a bias to early autumn.


For that reason they are holding a production sale on the farm on September 20 this year in which the whole milking herd – except for the ‘old ladies’ – will be on offer. And the Sandyford herd does contain some spectacular ‘old ladies’.


“We aim for an average of six lactations. At the moment our replacement rate is about 15% per annum. We try to breed a medium sized cow, with good legs, feet and mobility that gives a good volume of milk and gets back in calf easily, and is also going to enjoy a long productive life.


“The main reason cows are culled is for old age and lack of fertility. A few of them develop feet and leg problems,” says Blaise. The herd currently contains more than 30 animals aged 10 years or older.

Show cow

The top show cow, October 2002-born Sandyford Clover 10, is due with her 10th calf soon and will add further litres of milk to her current 112,000 total.

Sandyford Clover 10 was the first Ayrshire cow ever to be rated EX97.

She is in such good shape the Tomlinsons toyed with the idea of showing her again, although they admit she has nothing left to prove. If the decision were left to Clover herself, she would be out there.


“When we get the show team out for clipping she will be at the gate looking out, as though she’s saying ‘What about me?’ She loves all the attention.”


Clover 10 was the first Ayrshire cow ever to be rated EX97. “She is a ‘oncein- a-lifetime’ cow. When John Gribbon first awarded her that rating it surprised many people. But four other classifiers have agreed with him in the six years since, so she has proved herself and stood the test of time,” says Blaise.


Clover is actually only half Ayrshire, being by a red Holstein sire. “The society allowed us to bring in outside genetics at the time. We used the red Holstein to add more milk and capacity into our stock because we didn’t feel the Ayrshires available at the time could do that.


“The breed genetics available now are much better, and we have been using pure bulls exclusively for the past five years,” adds Blaise.


Clover 10 is still some years younger than the matriarch of the herd. That title goes to Sandyford Mayflower 5, classified EX95 and now 18 years old and retired from milk production.


She is due to enter an IVF programme so they can retain her outstanding bloodlines. She averaged more than 10,000 litres through 12 lactations, with a peak yield of over 13,000kg.


Current averages across the herd are around 8000 litres per lactation at 4.2% butterfat and 3.4% protein.


One of the keys to achieving that is getting all calves off to a good start, and that is part of the business which Deborah manages. Newborn calves are housed in a purpose-designed building. They are initially reared in individual hutches, with feed individually controlled, and if needed fitted with jackets.

Calves image

Calves are given a good start and are initially reared in individual hutches.

Grand daughter of Sandyford Clover 10 image

Grand daughter of Sandyford Clover 10 and showing great promise.

Once they join the milking herd their winter rations are 4kg/day of a 30% high protein blend, 0.5kg of straw and 18kg grass silage. To this they normally add 20kg of maize silage, but a poor year for maize yields and quality means that this past winter they are feeding 10kg maize silage supplemented with 10kg of pressed pulp.


The TMR supports up to 22 litres and above this they get a 16% protein, 13.5ME nut from out-of-parlour feeders at 0.3kg/litre. Cows averaging around 8000 litres will take about half that from the TMR.


Once at grass they reduce the protein level in the blend and – at night – feed a total mixed ration comprising 4kg grass silage, 1kg chopped straw, 8kg forage maize or 7kg pressed pulp.

Dry cows

Dry cows get half the milkers’ ration, with the blend being replaced by an extra 5kg/head of chopped straw. Three weeks before calving they move onto a dry cow nut through out-of-parlour feeders.


Milk goes via Arla to Tuxford and Tebbutt for Stilton cheese, although they are currently considering selling some of it from the farmgate.


While this potential enterprise is still at an early stage of planning, Blaise points out the breed society commissioned research some years ago into the potential to sell Ayrshire milk as a premium product due to its flavour and easily digestible fat, with positive results.


Deborah says when they show visitors around the farm and explain the work that goes into producing milk, they seem happy to pay a higher price for it. And their location – close to two major commuter routes which cross the forest – could be a valuable asset.


That would be one way to avoid what Blaise says is their biggest problem – coping with the price volatility.


“We can produce milk economically, but we have real problems dealing with the volatility of milk prices and interest on borrowings. The proceeds of the sale will help us reduce borrowings, and we will fortunately have a big heifer crop coming into the herd to replace the cows which have been sold,” he explains.


“This winter, with prices being so low, we have worked hard to get more milk from forage and managed to maintain good production from concentrate usage of 0.25kg/litre. Each cow effectively produces 8000 litres from two tonnes of feed.


“Even so we have seen our margin fall by around £700/cow due to milk prices over which we have no control,” adds Blaise.

Sandyford herd diet

Normal winter daily ration:

  • 4kg of 30% high protein blend
  • ½ kg straw
  • 18kg grass silage
  • 20kg maize silage

This winter (due to reduced maize yield/quality):

  • 4kg of 30% high protein blend
  • ½ kg straw r18kg grass silage
  • 10kg maize silage
  • 10kg pressed pulp

Summer: Grazing during the day

  • 4kg of blend (with reduced protein)

TMR at night containing:

  • 4kg grass silage
  • 1kg chopped straw
  • 8kg of forage maize or 7kg of pressed pulp.
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