22 November 1996

AHEADON GUERNSEYS

Guernseys may appear to figure less favourably than Jerseys in recent Genus comparisons, but Peter Grimshaw describes a family business that is built on the breeds special attributes

GRAHAM and Madeline Beer doubt whether they would have been able to achieve the gross margins yielded by their herd if they had not chosen Guernseys.

Their 22ha (56-acre) Devon county council farm at Weston, Honiton, is split into small, awkward fields, some of them quite steep, but the loam over clay gives good grazing and forage.

Mr Beer started out as a farm worker, and his experience as a relief milker included a well known Guernsey herd 250m (800ft) above sea level on Dartmoor. He was impressed by the breeds hardiness, docility and longevity.

The Beers bought 35 cows when they won the tenancy of a Devon county council farm at Dawlish. That was nine years ago, and some of the original group are still milking well. They moved with the Beers to the present farm five years ago. Among those still going strong is Kenvin Estelle 12, born in 1982 and giving nearly 30 litres a day in the fourth month of her 12th lactation. In the previous cycle she notched up 7075 litres.

The Hamlyn herd of pedigree English Guernseys yielded 4763 litres in the year to April 1996, putting it in the top 10% of Milkminder recorded Guernsey herds. The result was a gross margin, after forage and quota leasing costs, of £1484/ha (£600/acre).

The Beers own 176,000 litres of mixed standard and Channel Islands quota, which means that last year they had to lease 120,000 litres. The cost of leasing amounted to about £400/ha (£162/acre), so without it the gross margin would compare favourably with that achieved by black-and-whites, many of which would be on far better land.

This ability to realise a decent return from less than favourable circumstances is the breeds contribution to the success the Beers have enjoyed as they have worked to build up their farming business. If they had not been constrained by milk quotas, Mr Beer believes the herd would have grown even faster. He thinks he could run as many as 80 Guernseys on the farm, together with a further 8ha (20 acres) of annually rented grass.

Home-reared heifers

All heifers are reared, and there are currently about 20 followers of all ages. Until the BSE crisis, a proportion of the herd was inseminated with Charolais and Belgian Blue bulls to produce a higher value calf for sale. As long as the £75 dairy bull calf compensation scheme lasts, lower-priced Guernsey bulls will be used. But the Beers have never come across calving problems with the beef bulls, thanks to the breeds good pelvic opening.

The aim at Crosshills Farm is to get as much as possible from grazing and forage. This season 16ha (40 acres) of first-cut grass yielded about 400t of silage. It was taken three weeks later than usual but regrowth was swift. Second cuts are saved as bales.

The aim is to produce high quality silage, last years clamp silage achieving 29.4% DM, 71 D-value and 15% CP.

Grass silage is backed by 4.5ha (11 acres) of forage maize, and again the aim is quality silage, with 38.4% DM, 71 D-value, 7% CP and 32% starch equivalent. The ration is supplemented only by minerals and fed over feed barriers with a simple feed wagon.

This year 1.8ha (4.5 acres) of fodder radish has been grown as an insurance against mid-summer drought.

Last years forage yielded 2341 litres a head. The rest was gained from feeding a high energy, 21% protein proprietary compound in the parlour. This amounted to 0.26kg/litre, to leave a margin concentrates a litre of 23.2p.

Mr Beer admits higher production could be achieved by adopting a total mixed ration or out-of-parlour feeding system. But as long as much of the gross income is gobbled up by quota leasing costs, the necessary investment is out of reach. It is a familiar predicament to producers who have set up since quotas were introduced.

The Hamlyn milk goes to Milk Marque, which collects it daily and ships it to the Cheese Company at Carlisle or to Peterborough for packaging as liquid breakfast milk. A shortage of quality milk in the face of increasing consumer demand has helped to boost the Channel Islands premium to 0.6p, and there is optimism that it will go even higher. Last year the Beers achieved an average quality of 4.88% butterfat and 3.52% protein, a fat to protein ratio of 1.39. TBC and cell counts put their milk in the top band of premium.

Although he has formed an attachment with Guernseys, Mr Beer says he would be equally happy working with Friesians. "Even though the Genus comparisons cast Channel Islands breeds in a favourable light, we do not expect to cover the country with brown cows," he says.

Even so, if he won the lottery and could afford better land, he would first consider exploiting the huge potential for genetic improvement that the report highlights.

North American bulls

He is already doing the best he can. Bulls of mainly North American origin are chosen to increase size and yield capacity without loss of the milk quality, hardiness and durability that are regarded as the breeds primary economic assets. Bulls used to improve the herd include Bulkeley Blanches Governor, Shalford Yette and Ripley Farms Dallas.

Genetic improvement is hampered by one of the breeds outstanding characteristics, its longevity. The replacement rate in the Hamlyn herd is only 15%, but even so an annual yield improvement of just under 200 litres a cow has been achieved, and the increase last year was 300 litres, so the herd average is expected to pass 5000 litres this year. No cows have been bought into the herd for the past five years.

The oldest cow is 20 years old and completing her 17th lactation. Mr Beer believes this excellent return on an investment of only £400 more than compensates for a low value bull calf and poor cull cow price. The initial purchase price is also lower, a further attraction for those establishing or increasing a herd.

The breeds docility makes it easy to manage, and the whole family can handle most of the animals in the herd. But there is little room for sentiment alone in todays tough environment.

"They are not here just because I like them, or because grandfather started the herd, or because they look good in front of a stately home," comments Graham Beer. "They have got to earn money for me and the bank manager."

lA copy of the Genus report, Profitability in Guernsey Herds, can be obtained from The English Guernsey Cattle Society (01494-774114). &#42

Graham Beer grows fodder radish to insure against summer drought on his Crosshills Farm. Last year, milk from forage was 2341 litres a head.

The Beer family are impressed by the Guernseys hardiness, docility and longevity. Their own Hamlyn herd averaged 4763 litres to April this year.


CROSSHILLS FARM

&#8226 Herd size 60 English Guernseys plus followers.

&#8226 Performance 4763 litres on twice-daily milking.

&#8226 Quality 4.88% butterfat. 3.52% protein.

&#8226 MOC £1362.

&#8226 Gross margin/ha £1484 (after quota leasing costs).

&#8226 Quota 176,000 owned, 120,000 leased.


&#8226 Herd size 60 English Guernseys plus followers.

&#8226 Performance 4763 litres on twice-daily milking.

&#8226 Quality 4.88% butterfat. 3.52% protein.

&#8226 MOC £1362.

&#8226 Gross margin/ha £1484 (after quota leasing costs).

&#8226 Quota 176,000 owned, 120,000 leased.