A British Friesian breeder with a herd average yield
of 8500kg is finding good demand for his stock from
milk producers who are unhappy with Holstein
cow longevity. Jeremy Hunt reports
CUMBRIA British Friesian breeder Willie Bell smiles as he looks over one of his 15-month-old bulls thats already sold and is awaiting collection.
"Weve sold him for 3000gns and hes going to work in a 250-cow Holstein herd in Northern Ireland," says Mr Bell.
In these difficult times for dairy farming, such prices for a home-bred black-and-white bull add a welcome bonus to the milk cheque. But theres nothing unusual about it for the Bell family whose pedigree British Friesians are in constant demand.
Make your mark in the farms visitors book and you cant help noticing how many dairy farmers pass through this herd run at Saltcoats, west of Carlisle and close to the Solway Firth. And the fact that they are not all British Friesian breeders is what gives Willie and Eileen Bell the greatest satisfaction.
"Many dairy farmers feel that the Holstein has taken them a step too far. The type of animal they have ended up with is too extreme, it isnt designed for their style of management and it simply isnt lasting long enough.
Back on track
"Thats when they start looking at the British Friesian to get them back on track," says Mr Bell, who has just retired from the family partnership.
His Marshside herd was founded in 1965. It has just been split into two herds each numbering 40 cows, as son Richard has established the Nerewater prefix and youngest son Edward has maintained Marshside at the home farm.
Theres nothing stuffy, dumpy or low-yielding about these British Friesians. "Even before the Holstein became popular we always aimed to breed a good-sized cow at around 144cm with plenty of capacity, clean over the shoulder and with good width behind," says Mr Bell.
Latest figures, before the recent division of the herd, show it yielding an average of 8500kg at 4.2% fat and 3.35% protein.
There is a steady demand for calved heifers and the herd rears about 20 young bulls each year. Bulls are sold privately and at pedigree sales at Carlisle. A few years ago the Bells earned 28,000gns for bulls sold at auction in two days.
When Marshside cows are driven down the lane the mobility, purposeful gait and excellent legs and feet are noticeable.
"We dont get lame cows. Our cows feet are nearly all black and they are very hard in the hoof," explains Mr Bell.
The herd is traditionally managed in cubicles and offered self-feed silage. Late April turnout sees the herd strip-grazed wherever possible. But any cow giving over 18 litres/day receives concentrates in summer, up to a maximum of 5.5kg a day.
In winter cows are fed 1.8kg of a 19% concentrate at midday with the rest in the parlour up to a maximum of 11.3kg/day. Top yielders are giving 11,000kg but heifers are not pushed for more than 7000kg.
"We are looking for a peak of 40kg-plus from cows, but certainly with British Friesians you get a more level and sustained peak yield for up to three months. And it makes management easier."
Mr Bell says the British Friesian has always given him a good living and he has never had any reason to change. Finding new sires from such a small breed gene pool is a challenge, but its not hampering progress.
"Legs, feet and wearability are the breeds strengths. Holsteins were used on British Friesian cows and the first cross was OK, but sustained Holstein influence has left many milk producers with a type of cow they didnt want."
Longevity is highlighted by the many cows in the herd above sixth lactation. One of the herds best is an 11th calver which has produced over 100t of milk. Her dam also produced 100t in 14 lactations.
The Bells dispute critics who say their breed lacks the body capacity of modern Holsteins and is, therefore, less efficient. "The Holstein is bred to produce such a narrow and sharp style of cow that there is not as much engine room in there as you think.
"The only reason they appear to be bigger is that they stand taller than a British Friesian," adds Mr Bell.
"Holstein breeders have produced a cow that is clean and sharp at the front end, but is too narrow at the back end. If they go much further, the breed could start suffering calving problems."
Mr Bell says increasing numbers of Holstein herd owners are buying British Friesian bulls because they feel their cows have become too frail.
The herds most successful bull was Marshside Performer which died two years ago aged 12. Performer, by Ryebeck Excel and out of Marshside Pollyanth 6, joined the Bovex AI stud where he was widely used. His first 10 sons averaged £3000 at auction, including one at 5600gns and his highest yielding daughter topped 12,000kg.
The Pollyanth, Wallflower, Regina and Cutie families are among the herds most notable. "We want cows with good constitution and conformation; if you look at the backbone of the modern Holstein cow it stands above the shoulders, whereas a British Friesians backbone lies within the shoulder."
British Friesian heifers are finding new customers among dairy farmers whose income from beef-cross calves has also been affected by the Holstein influence.
"Limousin x British Friesian heifers make ideal suckler cows and thats another source of revenue thats drying up if youve a Holstein herd," says Mr Bell. *
British Friesians are in constant demand, but more interest is coming from Holstein breeders who want longer lasting cows, says Willie Bell.
Young pedigree British Friesian bulls sold at good prices provide a welcome addition to the milk-cheque at Saltcoats in these difficult times.
• Bulls being used on Holsteins.
• Heifers in demand.
• Yield 8500kg.