Sit with the Gould family round their kitchen table and you’ll certainly not go short of genuine Lancashire hospitality – the fact this kitchen is in the heart of Shropshire makes no difference at all.
The Goulds, and their Woodmarsh herd of pedigree Holsteins, are now firmly established in their home of the past 13 years at Bomere Heath, Shrewsbury.
And at the heart of this success is a family still loyal to its Lancashire roots. Michael and Jean Gould have certainly come a long way from the two county council smallholdings in Lancashire that gave them their first leg-up on to the farming ladder in the 1960s.
But 1993 – and still on the county council smallholding at Tower View, Hutton, Preston – the herd turned a corner. The average yield topped 10,000kg.
Today, 15 years later at its home on the 330-acre Grange Farm, Shropshire, the 220-cow herd is averaging 12,500kg and the Gould family can look back with justifiable pride, not only on its breeding achievements, but on the world-wide demand it has generated for the Woodmarsh prefix.
On the home-front no regular buyer of cattle at the Western Holstein Club’s sales held at Beeston Castle market will miss the chance to take a long, hard look at the cattle in the Woodmarsh stalls.
But this isn’t a herd that has built its reputation on five-figure prices paid for prima donnas. The herd’s top price at Beeston is 4000gns and in total it has taken the championship 14 times. These cattle are renowned for type, production and longevity, traits making Woodmarsh cattle among the most sought after, far beyond the ringside at Beeston.
Having moved from two small tenanted council holdings, the Gould family led by Michael and Jean (left) have now established the worldwide recognised Woodmarsh herd of pedigree Hoslteins.
Today this is a just as much a family business as it was at the start. Michael and Jean are still heavily involved – although Michael says he’s now reached an age where he reckons he can retire from milking. At the sharp end of the herd’s management and breeding policy is son Mick helped by his wife Katherine. Michael and Jean’s grandson Andrew is the team’s latest recruit.
Michael Gould was brought-up in urban Preston in a family that had no farming connections. But that was never going to hamper a young lad with clear vision of what he wanted out of life – even though he didn’t get much support from his father when he arrived home one day leading a nanny goat on a piece of string.
He met Jean when they were both at the Lancashire Agricultural College’s farm at Hutton in 1957. They married in 1963 and were determined to farm.
As Michael and Jean recall those early days of trying to make a living from part-time farming on just two acres, you can’t help but read more into their smiles and jokes as they recall selling eggs, keeping turkeys, fattening pigs and rearing calves. This was a couple with a dream, and like others with a passion to farm, it was a dream they weren’t going to let slip away for want of sheer hard graft.
They moved to Tower View in 1967, but money was still tight. To make matters worse foot-and-mouth disease erupted 30 miles away in Cheshire.
“I don’t think young people could imagine how hard it was. When I say we were skint, I really mean it, but we were young, full of work and committed to cows. I remember we were getting just 15p/gallon at the time,” says Michael.
The 52-acre Tower View Farm with its 22 cow-stalls provided the opportunity they’d been looking for to start milking – and even some of the cow families of today’s Woodmarsh herd can trace their ancestry back to some of the early purchases bought as foundation cows.
The Goulds are adamant the strength of their cow families has far more influence on yeild than any of the bulls they have used.
“From the beginning we selected the best – even though we had a tight budget. We set ourselves a target to get one cow to give 2000 gallons and although plenty thought we couldn’t do it, we did with one of the first cows we bought. We reckoned that if one could do it, we could get them all to do it.
The Woodmarsh prefix was registered in 1970 and among the first pedigree purchases was a Weeton heifer from the Dewdrop family and an Isobel from Hoohall. Gradually well-bred females from established cow families bolstered cow numbers at Tower View.
Standing out among early pedigree purchases were four heifers by Tredene Jan Aledema. “He was a real milk bull and on the day of the sale his daughters were making about £400 we managed to pick one up at £120.”
Put on the spot to name the cow that made a real impact and they have no hesitation in naming Ensdon Helen 27, coincidentally hailing from the Draper family, Shropshire. She cost 2200gns as a second calver in 1981 – far more than the Goulds had paid before. And when the Grove herd held a big reduction sale two years later the Woodmarsh herd added a member of the successful Butterfly family.
Ridgewardine Jacobite, Tredene Jan Aledema, Lavenham Creater, Noremead Quaker and Weeton Herald have also left their mark. “We knew from the beginning where we wanted to get to, but there was never the spare cash to do it, so we had to bide our time and let the breeding come through,” says Jean.
This is a herd that has never used a beef bull. “We needed a good number of heifers to give us plenty of selection, but we also had to be ruthless. We still follow a rigorous selection policy.”
In 1984 the Goulds found themselves at the Winter Gardens in Blackpool collecting the NMR Makbar trophy for the top herd in Lancashire on production/inspection – a title they won for 10 years in succession, which was every time they entered.
But good breeding won’t perform without good feeding. “One of the worst pieces of advice dairy farmers have been given in recent years is to cut costs. Yes, you have to watch costs, but not at the expense of producing milk.
“We always tried to make high quality silage – early cut and dry – and in the early days we fed it with cabbages, brewer’s grains and fodder beet. And we never skimped on cake.” Even today Michael Gould still watches for key indicators of a cow’s health: Her muck, her milk, her body condition and how she’s behaving.
But what type of cow fits the modern Woodmarsh model? Mick gives a concise and positive response. “It may be against the current trend, but we still want a cow with size – a 60in cow – but by size I don’t just mean stature I mean with capacity, width and power at the front as well as the back end. I want plenty of heart room cows with capacity to eat a lot of forage, balanced with good legs, feet and udders.
“There’s a lot of stresses put on high yielding cows that can influence mature size, so it’s important to aim for something bigger than you know you will end up with,” says Mick.
The Gould’s are adamant the strength of their cow families has far more influence on yield than anything imparted by the bulls they use. The Helen, Torch and Hatlady families are among the herd’s oldest and most successful, while some of the more modern families are the Melodys and the Lymes. There’s tremendous production here with three of the first members of the new Melody family each having achieved 100t.
But Mick is ever watchful of breeding developments on a global scale and has now introduced the Zandra and Gypsy Grand families. The high-profile Zandras hail from California, but to overcome bluetongue import restrictions an embryo by Comestar Outside was brought over from Germany. Of the 18 Zandra females in the UK there are now 13 at Woodmarsh.
The dam of the Outside Zandra embryo was an Ex-95 Mandel daughter, explains Mick. “She has excellent balance with style and has earned high praise from top UK breeders who rate her as one of the world’s best cows.” The first Zandra at Woodmarsh has just completed her heifer lactation at just over 12,000kg and almost 4.8% fat and has classified VG87 2-yo.
And now the Woodmarsh prefix is making a name for itself in the heartland of Holstein breeding. It’s the first herd in the UK to send embryos back to Canada and continues to supply bulls to European herds as well as the Cogent and Genus studs. And it notched up another first when a UK-bred heifer – a Woodmarsh Melody – achieved VG for her new owners in Canada.
With expansion about to increase the herd to over 300 cows and some exciting genetic plans for the future, the Woodmarsh story is certainly an inspirational one full of commitment, passion and vision.