Ayrshires strengthen Cumbrian dairy herd

Developing the Ayrshire to meet the type of animal demanded by today’s dairy industry has seen the careful introduction of red and white Holstein genetics in many herds.

But while purists may frown upon the impact it has had on the breed, anyone looking at the 230 Ayrshire milkers owned by the Mattinson family in Cumbria could not fail to be impressed with the strength and power that’s evident throughout their Troutbeck herd.

Frank and Margaret Mattinson, who farm with sons James and Philip, have steadily expanded the herd since moving to Rosewain Farm, Wigton, in 2005. Previously carrying just beef and sheep, the farm has been turned into a modern dairy unit where the policy is to produce hard-wearing, functional red and white cattle – a challenge that keeps all modern Ayrshire breeders on their toes as they strive to maintain a careful blend of genetics.

“We’d been milking up until 1987 on our previous farm but then had 12 years of sucklers and sheep. After foot-and-mouth – and with two sons who wanted to come home – we decided to go back into milk but were unhappy with the poor wearability of Holsteins and aware of the impact of high depreciation on a newly established dairy herd.

“So we decided to go for Ayrshires that we felt would last longer, be quiet to manage and give us higher levels of milk quality,” explains Frank Mattinson.

Like many herds, some of the early red and whites to arrive contained the first red and white breeding to be used on Ayrshires through the Holstein Horizon Ranger Red. Now milking 230 head, the family has spent the last five years building up herd numbers, including the successful use of sexed semen.

“We’d like to get to the position of having surplus heifers to sell as part of the farm’s income and hopefully that will happen this year – but sexed semen has certainly helped us to move forward much faster,” says Mr Mattinson.

Twin brothers James and Philip are both keen on pedigree breeding and have used sexed semen on heifers and some of the herd’s best cows.

James says they give heifers one chance with sexed semen and then they run with the bull. “Heifers are achieving 75-80% conception rates and we’ve only had three bull calves over three years. We’re strict about insemination technique and stick to the precise recommended thawing temperature. Heifers are served 12 hours after we see a standing heat.”

Winter diets are based on a complete ration of grass and maize silage with a blend and molasses and a rumen buffer. The herd is run as one group and fed concentrate to top-up feed needs in the parlour.

Heat-Time collars have been fitted to all the cows in the herd and a new foot-bath and race has been installed for cows as they leave the 16:32 milking parlour. “There’s a shedding gate that cuts out anything that’s bulling and it’s working well. There are cows being picked up by Heat-Time that we haven’t seen bulling,” says Philip.

The Mattinsons say their aim is to breed Ayrshires that “look right, will last and wear well and have ready market among commercial milk producers.” The herd average is nudging 8000kg at 4.9% fat and 3.6% protein.

Mr Mattinson says a stock bull, Westmossgill Lord of the Rings, which was just over 60% Holstein did a tremendous job. “He gave us plenty of milk, good constituents and good type.

“But I don’t think anyone should assume that just because there’s a high proportion of Holstein in a cow’s breeding she will be lighter in her frame. We’ve got plenty of cows with a high proportion of Holstein breeding that are thick, square, powerful cows that could comfortably take a Holstein-bred bull without risking losing any Ayrshire type.

“So every individual animal is bulled according to what we think will suit her breeding and her conformation,” he says.

The family also believes the growing interest in red and white genetics – and the increasingly economic need for cows to last longer – is focusing even more attention on the Ayrshire.

“We’ve got cows in the herd in their eighth and ninth lactations and we’ve just calved 10 heifers in a week and they just walked into the parlour as though they’d always been doing it. Temperament is a big bonus with this breed,” says Mr Mattinson.