Gold Cup dairy herd finalists go head to head

Six top herds feature in this year’s NMR/RABDF Gold Cup line-up. Here’s how they look ahead of the announcement of the winner at Livestock Event 2013

David Ball, Kemble Farms, Kemble, Cirencester, Gloucestershire

It’s no surprise to find this high-performance herd in the limelight when you uncover the dedication of staff, their commitment to protocols and the attention to detail that goes on in maintaining the production, health and welfare of this Holstein herd.

David Ball, manager of the 950ha farm, recognises that 800 cows is not something one or two can do – it needs the dedication of a whole team. The Thameshead herd is milked three times a day by a team of seven under the guidance of the herd manager Tim Wring. Their role is solely milking cows in the 36-point rapid exit parlour that runs for 17 hours a day.

In addition, two staff members are responsible for herd health, another for herd feeding and a further two staff rear all of the dairy youngstock.

NMR records show that the 585 qualifying lactations for the year up to September 2012 averaged 11,345kg of milk at 3.59% fat and 3.08% protein. Average somatic cell count was 166,000/ml, within the limits required by the buyer, Dairy Crest, for the herd’s 7.7m litres a year. The herd has a calving interval of 395 days.


To qualify for the Gold Cup herds needed official milk records for100 or more cows, a cell count of 200,000cells/ml or less and a minimum PLI specific to the breed – £37 for Holsteins – for the year ending September 2012.

Neil Christensen, Steanbow Farms, Pilton, Shepton Mallet, Somerset

Steanbow Farms’ dairy enterprise has been selected as a finalist in the NMR RABDF for the second year running. Neil Christensen, who farms in partnership with his father Finn and brother Michael, runs the 507 Holstein cows on half the farm’s 607ha.

Despite good grassland, these cows are housed all year round on sand cubicles, with a loose straw yard for calving. Heifers remain on the farm for their first year, and are contract reared for the second year “We don’t have enough buildings to keep them all, and we’re in a nitrate vulnerable zone, so it works very well to send them away for a year,” says Neil.

Housing the cows indoors has paid dividends. Yields have increased and in the year ending September 2012 the herd at Steanbow achieved 10,452kg of milk at 3.71% fat and 3.09% protein on three-times-a-day milking. Age at first calving is 2.08 years and 30% of the herd is in its fourth or more lactation. These factors contribute to a calving interval of 394 days and the herd has a high lifetime daily yield of 15.49kg/day. Somatic cell count is low at 96,000/ml, with milk sold to Dairy Crest.


Higgins Family, Wilderley Hall Farms, Pulverbatch, Shrewsbury

A Shropshire dairy herd, frequently in the limelight for its high production and leading management regimes, has made it into the final six of this year.

“One of our long-term ambitions is to win the Gold Cup,” says Andrew Higgins, who runs the Wilderley herd of pedigree Holsteins with his brother Andrew and parents Bill and Margaret.

“We feel we’re in with a good chance this year, as we are combining high milk yields with consistently high lifetime daily yields and expanding cow numbers to maximise our resources.”

In the year to September this three-times-a-day milked herd achieved 12,718kg at 3.81% fat and 3.03% protein based on 230 qualifying criteria. The high performance is impressively balanced with a low cell count for the year of 68,000/ml, a bactoscan of 14 and a herd average lifetime daily yield of 18.31kg/day.

Cow numbers have increased dramatically in the past 15 years to the current 316 cows and 266 youngstock under two years old on the 145ha at Wilderley Hall, Pulverbatch, near Shrewsbury.

“In turn, we look after our staff and make sure they have a good package, including wages, accommodation and transport. Handling and managing our cows is a big responsibility and I’d like to think we recognise this very fairly,” says Andrew.


David and James Tomlinson, Bilsborrow Hall Farm, Bilsborrow, Preston

The well-known Bilsrow herd from Bilsborrow near Preston is a family unit run by David Tomlinson and son James, with help in the calf house and office from Sheila.

James takes responsibility for the herd milking, fertility and health, with the help of an assistant herdsman, James Billington. David – with part-time help from Russell Thompson- looks after the land work and feeding.

Breeding decisions has always underpinned the progress and success of this herd, which achieved an average yield of 10,538kg of milk at 4.41% fat and 3.14% protein on twice-a-day milking for the year ending September 2012.

“A good balance is our guideline,” says David. “We balance type merit – particularly legs and feet that will contribute to longevity – and production. We want trouble-free cows.”

Their milk has gone to the local family-run cheese making company Dewlay at Garstang for the past 20 years – they are keen supporters of like-minded family companies.

Milk production is core to their activities and to this end James – with Mr Billington – stick to strict protocols, particularly in the parlour. “We know this helps to minimise mastitis,” says James. “Our qualifying cell count average for the Gold Cup was 118,000/ml and the bactoscan is 15. A herd of healthy cows is essential to our business.”


Darren and Stuart McMurran, 88 Castlevennon Road, Dromore, County Down

Eight years ago, brothers Darren and Stuart McMurran walked their then 70-strong herd of Holstein cows from their original home, a couple of miles down the road, to 88 Castlevennon Road. “Buying the new farm provided us with the facilities to expand the herd in a meaningful way,” says Darren. Now 270 cows go through the milking parlour and there are normally about 40 dry cows at any one time.

“The cows are kept in 24:7 and we milk three times a day,” says Darren. “Increasing the herd size further is not a practical option for us, so our business plan for the future is based on two fundamental principles – maximising milk output per cubicle place and ensuring that we get the best from every acre we farm.”

The herd at Dromore is currently averaging 10,533kg a lactation at 3.88% butterfat and 3.07% protein. SCCs are excellent, averaging 116, 000/ml. Approximately three-and-a-half tonnes of concentrate is fed per lactating cow, with milk from forage – grass silage and whole crop wheat combined – amounting to 2,500 litres. The current calving index is 391 days.


David and Louise Hodgson, Wormanby Farm, Burgh by Sands, Carlisle

Runner-up in the 2012 NMR/RABDF Gold Cup, David Hodgson describes the past 12 months as challenging, with the weather affecting silage quality. “This affected production,” says Mr Hodgson, who runs the 150-cow Wormanby Holstein herd with his parents and wife. “We bought in more feed to make up the shortfall and this put pressure on margins.”

Despite these challenges, Mr Hodgson and his father Harry – who share the milking with weekend help from a relief milker – feel better placed than many to ride the storm. “We don’t have lots of extra wages to pay and we can decide just how and where to tighten our belts.”

That said, production for the herd has held up and the herd averaged 10,735kg at 3,87% fat and 3.09% protein, with an average cell count of 136,000/ml and bactoscan of 25 for the year ending September 2012. Milk from this year-round calving herd is sold to Arla and David remains confident in knowing he is supplying a large and expanding business – something he feels is necessary in market that is as volatile as that for milk.


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