By Robert Davies
COMPACT Jerseys imported from Denmark have replaced rangy North American type Holsteins on a Radnorshire farm.
The move followed the decision by producer Bill Davies and his manager Justin Rees to make better use of the grass growing potential of the 186ha (460 acre) Knill Farm, near Presteign. They also wanted to escape from the considerable pressures involved in producing high yields from genetically superior cows.
The 270-cow pedigree Hidden Valley Holstein herd was set up when Mr Daviess previous one was sold in 1996. It was based on expensive cows bought from several top Holstein herds, plus embryos and semen mostly imported from the US.
"This is a good grass farm, but these cows meant we were increasingly dependent on purchased feed to produce an average yield of more than 8500 litres/cow," says Mr Davies.
When both he and his manager joined the local Wye Graze discussion group they became convinced that it made sense to switch to spring block calving and to produce a more modest 5000-6000 litres/cow, with milk produced almost entirely from forage.
They elected to use Jerseys, as the smaller cows have lower maintenance requirements, and to optimise sales of milk solids. Denmark seemed to be a good place to buy large batches, so they sourced stock to replace the Holsteins there.
The changeover was not trouble free. Down calving heifers were skittish and far from easy to handle in the parlour, particularly as teat placement was frequently distorted by early lactation udder swelling.
"The cluster cups would not stay on until we imported some from Denmark, and I have never had such a bad back after milking," explains Mr Rees.
The 200 imports also proved susceptible to lungworm. Some aborted and five died or were put down, so the whole herd was vaccinated. Calving started in mid-February and turnout began in mid-March, or a month earlier than for black-and-whites.
About two miles of new tracks were laid to prepare for extended grazing, using material quarried on the farm. Mr Rees decided electric fences, rather than permanent paddocks, were the best way to ensure grazing efficiency.
A fresh area is being allocated after each milking and a back fence is used. Grass clear up rate has been good, with the sward grazed down to about 1700kg DM/ha. The only fertiliser applied this year was litter from a three tiered shed holding 150,000 broilers.
"Litter went on in mid-January, so it did not cause any rejection. Selling the Holsteins has reduced the overall stocking rate and grass will see little more than chicken muck this year," forecasts Mr Rees.
The spring of 2002 was not ideal for milk from forage. Low temperatures and below average rainfall brought grass growth to a standstill for three weeks in March and early April. After turnout cows continued to receive 3kg of concentrate, 3kg of wholecrop wheat/day and hay to provide fibre.
Buffer was supplied two hours before milking, so there was an edge on cows appetites when they returned to pasture.
Mr Rees says the aim is to operate a very simple system. Unlike Holsteins, Jerseys would not be milk recorded. Manage-ment success would be judged by bottom line profit and the stresses on cows and workers.
"Some people thrive on pushing their cows and themselves really hard. But we now feel its time to try a more relaxed lower input system with different sorts of challenges."
However, Mr Rees will not be around to watch the new system evolve. Instead, he is taking up a two year contract to manage a 400-cow herd in New Zealand, where many of the principles being adopted at Knill Farm have worked well for generations.
Mr Davies, who was a beef and sheep producer until Mr Rees was employed 20 years ago, says his thoughts on future of milk production are flexible. Before the recent steep fall in milk price, running 400 Jerseys was a serious option. Now he has some doubts. At least switching to a less stressful management system has given him more time to think. *
• Lighter animals on ground.
• Extended grazing season.
• Care needed when importing.
Bill Davies believes Jerseys will allow a low-cost extended grazing system on his Welsh unit.