The goalposts keep moving for new entrants into dairy farming which means thinking further outside the box for those determined to have a farm – starting by keeping their own cows at work
Keeping good staff and getting started in farming are two major problems for different sectors of the dairy industry these days. But one solution that seems to be solving both problems in Norfolk, is allowing a herd manager to run his own pedigree Jersey cows with the farm’s Holsteins.
Ben Etteridge caught the showing bug at the age of eight and bought his first show calf from a family friend when he was 15 years old. Ten years later, his Moonshine Jersey herd (now comprising 11 cows and six heifers) is kept alongside the 170 Holsteins plus 121 followers he manages for Nick Tibbenham at Weybread Hall, Diss, Norfolk.
So far, additional purchases have come from savings, salary and small loans. However, Mr Etteridge’s goal is to fund further investments from selling top quality genetics – including a bull into AI in the future and to build up a herd that can take him to a share-farming agreement, or farm tenancy within the next 15 years.
“I would be happy with a family farm of 150 cows,” he says. “At the moment my cows are still a hobby supported by me while I work here; I can’t earn income from showing. My plan is to breed heifers that people want to buy, then I can get my money back – a good heifer can fetch £2000-3000.”
Mr Etteridge has worked at Weybread Hall for eight years, apart from a seven-month spell when he gained more experience in a Shorthorn herd. When he returned as herd manager in 2007, he brought his cows with him. Until then, they had had three different homes in local herds, paying their way in milk. This arrangement continues with Mr Tibbenham.
“I wouldn’t have had as many cows nor of such quality, without help. When my cows were on Jersey farms, those farmers supplied semen. Once they left, I bought my own. The biggest benefit has been in keeping them here. The cows are covered as part of routine vet work, and foot trimming, but any major work (such as a caesarean) I have to pick up the cost,” explains Mr Etteridge.
“Nick understands the milk pays for all I want. He got three lactations out of my cows in the first year that paid for them and three heifers. I paid for extras like semen. Now, eight cows have put milk in the tank at a price of about 26p/litre.”
To keep things simple, Mr Tibbenham sees no need for a written agreement: Everything works on mutual trust. And he has no regrets. In fact, he thinks it’s almost essential to consider such deals if the region is to keep good staff. “Long term, we’ve got to encourage younger people, who have drive and enthusiasm, into the industry. When someone is interested in breeding, it rubs off on my herd. Ben has good cows and they are not a problem,” he says.
Apart from their prize-winning looks – his first £50 calf ended up winning the championship at the Royal Norfolk in 2004 – Mr Etteridge prefers Jerseys because he believes they are efficient, healthy and fertile (see Table 1). “I’ve only ever tubed one of my cows for mastitis and only one has had digital dermatitis. My Jerseys are more profitable than Holsteins. But I need 10 completed lactations before I can start my own official herd records to be able to compare everything, which I should be able to do this year.”
Both Jerseys and Holsteins run as one herd throughout the year, on the same TMR ration plus grazing between mid-April and mid-October. Ideally, layout permitting, Mr Etteridge would split the herd into yield groups with the Jerseys permanently in the low yielder group. “They eat more than they need and it’s of high quality, so they can get fat,” he admits.
As he works towards his goal of farm ownership, Mr Etteridge remains committed to pedigrees. This year’s purchases, for instance, include three cows backed by up to seven generations of VG or EX, plus 10 embryos. Commercial cows would just pay for their keep, not future expansion, he says.
On the other hand, Mr Tibbenham, feels that allowing staff to keep their own commercial cows could work equally well. “In Norfolk, we can get quality herdsman to come into the region, but once they settle down and have kids, they want to move back home to be nearer the grandparents. Having herd managers with their own cows in herds is a good way of retaining staff long term.”
Yield (litres) 6015 9500
Butterfat (%) 5.10 4.00
Protein (%) 3.62 3.20
Calving index (days) 415 431
SCC (000/ml) 164 182