Less than 48 hours after his Aussie rules football team, Maffra, won the Gippsland League Reserves Grand Final, Wilara Holsteins’ Oakley Henry was on farm 16,893 km from home with Holstein UK classifier Iwan Thomas at the beginning of his Holstein UK exchange. Here he reflects on a busy month and some subtle and not so subtle differences in Holstein breeding between Australia and the UK.
One of the things I found interesting was a focus on breeding for Type more than Index on many of the farms I visited. I think part of the reason for this was the show focus of these farms – I took in both the UK Dairy Show as well as the All Breeds All Britain Calf Show. But there are also some key differences in milk supply that I think contribute to this.
A high percentage of UK dairy farmers, around 85% I think, are paid on volume rather than components like fat and protein. Some of the big supermarkets don’t worry about protein percent at all. I found that to be a really big difference with the bonuses Australian farmers can receive for higher protein and greater fat content.
With the Index breeders I visited their focus was firmly on fertility and production to meet supply chain demands. My impression is that this is part of a trend in the UK, with many pedigree farmers shifting their breeding goals more towards commercially viable animals, so concentrating more on components than traits such as size and structure.
One of the big drivers for uptake in use of sexed-semen currently in the UK is animal welfare, specifically around male calves.
Morrisons, one of the UK’s big four supermarkets, introduced a scheme to guarantee a market for all male calves born on its dairy suppliers farms while I was in the UK, requiring farmers to rear the calves to a certain weight between 15 – 40 days of age. These farmers, who are members of Arla UK 360 – a standards scheme – will be able to sell male calves to a beef company who processes them into products such as rose veal.
Other major retailers, including Sainsbury’s, the Co-op and Waitrose also run schemes to collect calves from their dairy suppliers and ensure they are reared.
Hence the increase in demand for sexed-semen in the UK. While schemes like this can only be good in animal welfare terms, initial indications are that they still come at quite a cost for farmers despite the guaranteed market for the calves.
Another animal welfare issue in the UK that we don’t have to deal with so much in Australia is animal lameness, particularly with cows feet, and its impact on longevity and productivity. It made me realise the distances our cows walk out here. Twice yearly foot trimming seemed to be the norm in England, with foot health being a particular issue as cows spend much of the year on concrete and don’t walk the kind of distances required to wear feet down naturally.
I was blown away by cow numbers at UK shows. A local calf show might get 45 or 50 head of cattle, at the Dairy Show there were around 140 head across all breeds and at the All Breeds All Britain Show upwards of 200 head.
At the Dairy Show I worked with Olly Reed from Beaconhill Holsteins and Matt House from Chedhunt Holsteins who between them had a very successful event with Olly winning Interbreed Junior Champion and Matt Reserve Senior Champion. A great experience.
I was also impressed with the Holstein Young Breeders (HYB) community, the way the organisation is run and the numbers of people involved. Part of this will be down to the high population in the UK, but it seemed to be run very much by young people for young people – a real strength of the program.
HYB attracts good industry funding, and they have a lot of different programs – from leadership events to exchanges and everything in between – with an emphasis on career progression and future career pathways. It also plays a really important role in helping to create an incredibly strong dairy community – everyone knows everyone and people are more than willing to help each other out at a moment’s notice. There’s a real sense of belonging.
My final weekend was spent with Staffordshire Young Breeders at the All Breeds All Britain Calf Show. One of the highlights was getting to work with and lead the cow that ultimately won the Red & White Championship.
There was a real focus on skills development in calf preparation and showmanship for the competitors, as well as a great social side to the whole event. The level of competition was very high, and although extremely competitive and hard work, there was also a real sense of comradeship and fun. It was a great end to my trip. Many thanks to HYB and Staffordshire Young Breeders for the experience.
The UK’s dairy regions
One of the great things about the exchange was visiting every part of the UK. Scotland and Northern Ireland made a real impression on me, and I’d really like to get back there some day.
In Northern Ireland farms and herd sizes were smaller than elsewhere in the UK – about 70 to 80 cows – but the Gregg family’s Frocess Holsteins, where I stayed, was bigger at 170 cows. Wallace and Joan Gregg have four kids, including 11 year old Bella who was super keen on the farm, telling me everything I needed to know including all the detail on their Dairymaster 24 swing over parlour.
I visited a number of other farms here, including one with robots milking 180 cows with three robots broken up into groups of 60 fresh mature cows, 60 fresh 2 year old’s and 60 stale cows. Another highlight was visiting the McLean family’s Relough herd, Northern Ireland Herd Competition winners, with some great type and show animals including three EX95 Shottle cows.
Scotland’s Northshields Holsteins was a step up in numbers, with 400 cows milked in a 40 unit rotary with all year calving. Owned by Andrew and Pat Wilson they farm 850 acres alongside James, Andrew’s brother, and his family, who run 120 beef cows.
What was interesting was how they met the different feed needs. They grow rye grass for silage, have grazing land for the beef cows and heifers, barley for whole crop silage and for grain, with an additional 60 acres of fodder beet for the cows over the winter.
I was fortunate enough to visit the Genus bull stud and laboratory and see first-hand the entire semen production process from collection to manufacturing and freezing.
One thing this visit really bought home to me is the high level of biosecurity in the UK. I was aware of the UK cow passport system and requirements around these before I arrived but wasn’t aware of things like the 60 to 120 day quarantine requirements for dairy cattle in certain situations.
My visit to Genus had to be carefully timed as they had a 48 hour restriction between being on farm and visiting their facility. At the stud I had to change protective clothing to visit each different area. It really bought home to me the importance of biosecurity, particularly with the density of the dairy cow population in the UK.
The exchange was an incredible experience. I’ve had an amazing time, stayed with some great people, made really good friends and learnt a lot. Definitely the experience of a life time. Thanks to Holstein UK, Holstein Australia, and everyone who worked to make my journey possible.