Replacing high genetic merit Holsteins with Jerseys has reduced the stress on members of a north Wales farming partnership and improved its income.
George Whittingham and sons Charlie and Richard admit the new challenges associated with changing breed have boosted their interest in, and enthusiasm for, milk production.
“Running 135 high yielding, year-round calving Holsteins was like being on a treadmill,” said George Whittingham during an open day at Llanbedr Farm, Ruthin, Denbighshire.
“We had already maximised potential of the black and whites.
The average yield was more than 10,000 litres/cow and we were selling surplus pedigree stock.
But the pressure never came off and expansion would have meant finding extra land and skilled labour.”
This was unfeasible in the Vale of Clwyd, where land values are high and suitable workers are in short supply.
A 2003 business review by Neil Blackburn of Kite Consulting suggested changing breed would allow the partners to sell milk on a constituency basis to Dairy Farmers of Britain’s Llandyrnog Creamery.
Though the farm tends to dry out in high summer, he saw potential to use grass better to exploit the dairy’s demand for high-quality spring and autumn milk.
The land can also grow good yields of maize silage, which could be useful for winter milk production and for buffer feeding when grass supplies are limited.
“Swedish Reds and Brown Swiss were considered. But block-calving Danish Jerseys were thought most suitable as they could give a good yield of butterfat and protein,” Mr Blackburn told visitors.
“They would be easy to calve, so no more skilled staff would be needed, and would get back in calf easily.
They were reasonably priced and more could be stocked without acquiring extra land.”
The initial target was to produce 7000 litres/cow at 5% fat and 4% protein from forage and 0.4kg concentrate/cow/litre.
The plan was to calve between July and September to maximise DFOB seasonality payments for summer milk.
Winter feeding would be TMR-based and cows would be turned out early to use spring grass, though it was accepted some buffer feeding would be required.
The partners agreed progress would be monitored by getting involved with the Welsh Assembly’s Farming Connect initiative as one of a network of dairy development demonstration units.
In their first lactation the 80 imported Jersey heifers, which cost about £750/head, averaged 6000 litres at 5.7% fat and 4.1% protein from forage and 0.34kg concentrate/litre.
In the light of experience, the original plans were modified to target a mature cow yield of 6500 litres at about 10.3% solids.
Experience showed milking rate was also 20% faster than with Holsteins.
Labour demand, particularly at night, was cut when only one Jersey needed assistance calving and a good conception rate ensured a tight block of second calvers.
Mr Blackburn said the current 26p/litre DFOB price meant the 5.5p/litre price premium over Holstein milk obtained in the first lactation had increased to more than 7p/litre.
The boost to profitability has encouraged the partners to replace the remaining Holsteins and run 240 Jerseys.
Half of cows were bred pure for replacements, 40% put to black and white sires for sale as crossbreds and 10% bred to a beef bull.
“Contract rearing has been considered, as it would allow the herd to grow to 300 cows.
But the economics are debatable when high-quality Jerseys can be imported at reasonable cost,” Mr Blackburn said.
Open day visitors had the opportunity to see the 2km of new cow tracks, constructed in nine days using stone quarried on the farm.
They also inspected the prototype of a portable water trough with a mounted hose, which is being developed by Charlie Whittingham and local steel fabricator Richard Francis.
Cled Richards, a Carmarthen-based grassland consultant, said it was important to monitor, and not guess, the rate of spring grass growth to decide whether buffer feeding made economic sense.
Measurements suggested that for a short period in an average season there was enough dry matter production to replace the maize-based buffer feed.
But cows need to be kept tight enough to ensure efficient utilisation.