As Organic September begins this week, one Scottish farming family has been practising the principle for almost 20 years. Opting to maximise efficiencies and bloodlines the Lochhead family are in business for the long haul, as Hannah Rose discovered.
The Lochhead family has farmed at Beyond the Burn, Dumfries for nearly 100 years. But it was the conversion to organic and introduction of the Brown Swiss breed which secured the farm’s viability for future generations to come.
Having taken numerous titles in the showing world, including reserve inter-breed at this year’s Dairy Expo, the Kedar herd is not only the largest pedigree Brown Swiss herd in the UK, but also one of the most decorated, despite being introduced after the 2001 foot-and-mouth outbreak.
Headed up by Gavin and Jane, their eldest son Jonny and his partner Jessica, the farm has gone from strength to strength by embracing change and developing new opportunities for the business and the breed.
The family decided to invest in Brown Swiss cattle after their previous 150-head milking herd was wiped out by foot-and-mouth in 2001.
Jonny says: “When we lost the herd, we had a big decision to make about the future of the farm,” he says.
“We had just completed the two-year conversion process to organic and although we were already farming a relatively low input, extensive system, we’d made several changes across the farm business and this was an unexpected blow.”
Already suppliers to the Organic Milk Suppliers Cooperative, the organic premium the family received helped to generate a steadier income for the farm and, following on from the stability, they decided to rebuild the business.
First the family set out to select a breed which would suit their farming system and produce high quality milk to attract a premium return.
“The Brown Swiss breed is perfect for this as they’re hardy and thrive on a predominantly outdoor system, while also producing milk which is naturally higher in protein,” says Jonny. “We used to run commercial Holstein Friesians and we had started to cross Brown Swiss into the herd when we lost them.”
After deciding to investment more permanently in the Brown Swiss breed, the Lochheads headed to Germany to buy in-calf heifers.
“At the time, the breed had a small presence in the UK and, as we needed to replace an entire herd, we required access to a much bigger supply pool.
“We initially imported 100 in-calf heifers in 2001 and, after a successful first year in production, we imported a further 33 the following year.”
Cow bloodlines are the backbone of the Kedar breeding strategy and have been instrumental in allowing the Lochheads to develop high type and production genetics from some of the best and most consistent cow families and brood cows.
“In 2012 I had the chance to go to Switzerland and witness the results of some of the top global genetics. With the intention to buy, I bought a handful of cows from top family lines in Switzerland, including Old Mill Starbuck Spottie, GS Alliance Tau Arkansas and Old Mill Wonderment Sunset, which really kicked off my passion for genetics.”
Since then, Jonny has pushed for continual improvement to progress the herd and the quality of the pedigree.
“Pedigrees are important as we are constantly adding value to the herd. It helps with breeding decisions as we can pick key bloodlines to introduce. It allows us to show a family bloodline is breeding well when selling cows, which helps to add value.
“We have produced some really prolific cows over the years and I am really proud of the animals we’ve produced, but I’ll always strive for more.”
Although the Lochheads have become renowned for show-quality cows, producing animals for the milking herd is the main priority.
“We’ve worked hard to produce cows which are just as good in the parlour as they are in the showring,” says Jonny.
“We’ve been using artificial insemination since we started the herd, which enables us to use genetics from around the world, breeding cows which serve our requirements and producing top quality replacements.
“There are certain traits I looks for when picking new sires. We try to individually select the best bull for individual cows to correct any faults and produce our ideal cow.
“Brown Swiss are celebrated for their good feet and legs and also for good udder attachment, which is important for us as an organic producer as it means they’re naturally less likely to have problems which may require medical treatment.”
The cows are turned out from March until at least October and this year Johnny hopes to extend this to November or December with some kale grazing.
Calving is year round, suiting the current system, and a close working relationship with their vet ensures the herd is carefully monitored to ensure they do not have any health problems.
An average of 7,600 litres per cow per year is being achieved, with about 70 per cent of this coming from forage.
“Our cows are consistently producing milk with an average level of protein at 3.6 per cent. We are continuing to focus on our grassland management and run a paddock grazing system, with the cows moved to a new paddock every 12 hours.
“The farm is part of the Scottish Organic Milk Producers grazing group and has offered lots of practical advice. Grassland management will continue to be a strong focus for the farm over the next few years, and plate metering is the next area I would like to focus on to fully utilise the pasture.”
Jonny’s focus on producing quality has paid off and, as a result, he has achieved significant success at international breed sales.
“For the past few years we have been lucky enough to take animals to the leading European sales, including the German Masters and the Brown Swiss World Congress.”
The Lochheads took the UK and French breed record in 2016 at the Brown Swiss World Congress, with Kedar Big Star Sienna, which sold for €10,400. “It takes a lot of planning and time to get the heifers to sales overseas, so you have to be sure they are the right animal and will grab the attention of buyers.
“We’re frequently asked why we sell some of our best animals, and our reason is we want to encourage new and enthusiastic breeders to the Brown Swiss bloodlines.
“It’s very rewarding to see them go on to do great things for other farmers, and to increase awareness of the qualities the Brown Swiss can bring to dairy herds.”
Jonny is passionate about supporting the next generation of farmers and has used social media to support this.
“We’ve held Facebook sales over the past few years, which have allowed new entrants to the breed to secure good quality stock at a reasonable price. We set a price limit for the cows and have always sold within a couple of hours of going live.
“It’s great to see so many young and passionate producers looking to the Brown Swiss breed as a starting point for their herd.”
Not wanting to rest on their laurels, the family has already made significant investments in the future, with Jonny’s parents Gavin and Jane launching the Kedar Cheese Company in 2016.
“We decided we wanted to look for way to allow our business to share our story with the public, and with the Brown Swiss being so naturally high in protein, the obvious choice for us was cheese.
Gavin initially took a course in Nantwich about five years ago, and another course on the Continent to learn how to make mountain cheese and mozzarella.
“We decided to produce mozzarella first as this was already popular in the UK and no-one in Scotland was producing a similar product at the time.
“We’ve now been successfully selling organic produce at farmers’ markets and farm shops across the south of Scotland for two years. It’s great to see so many repeat customers coming back for more of our organic mozzarella and mountain cheese.”
About 2 per cent of the milk goes into cheese production, but the family is looking to extend its range of products, which would increase the level of milk used on-farm.
“I’m really proud my family have been able to build a thriving business from such a challenging position of having lost our herd. I look forward to continuing to learn and drive our business for many more years to come.”