Suckler turned milker: Red Poll shows its strength with a value-added product

A picture of a Red Poll cow from cheese-maker Sue Jones’ herd features on the wrapper of every portion of Llanboidy cheese produced at her Welsh dairy farm.

And in an era when consumers are tempted by products with a story attached to them, this marketing tactic grabs the imagination.

As a Red Poll breeder, Mrs Jones is in a minority because she produces milk from this rare breed. Most Red Poll herds in Britain are run as suckler beef enterprises.

But the Red Poll works as a dairy breed for her because she adds value to milk.

“The success of Llanboidy cheese is purely down to the Red Polls because we have two things in our favour,” she reckons.

“We have a cow which is different from the type most cheese-makers use, but more importantly it is an old breed of cow producing a slightly different product.”

This subtle variation is intensified in the type of cheese she makes because milk is unpasteurised and her recipe allows time for the flavour to develop.

“A few years ago we tried using milk from a high yielding Friesian Holstein herd following an identical recipe, but the cheese was insipid.”

Mrs Jones was selling milk from a herd of Friesians at Cilowen Uchaf, Llanboidy, Carmarthenshire, when she was given some Red Poll calves.

At that time she was looking for an enterprise which would make the farm more productive.

She researched the breed and discovered that its milk had been widely used by cheese-makers in the 1800s.

She sold the Friesian herd, bought more Red Polls and established her cheese-making business.

She now has a herd of 100 cows.

It took a while to perfect the product because she was new to cheese-making, but with the help of her sister, Alison, the cheese has been hugely successful.

But she admits there are weaknesses with the breed as a dairy cow.

It produces a lower yield than modern breeds and there are fertility issues.

The herd averages less than 4000 litres, but she believes they could produce another 2000 litres under more intensive feeding.

However, she needs quality milk rather than quantity and so has a simple system of grass in the summer and silage with a high-quality concentrate feed in the winter.

“Where fertility is concerned Red Polls show poor signs of bulling.

My cowman very often pulls a cow out of the herd because he has noticed a change in her behaviour or slight warmth from her, but no other physical signs of bulling.”

She believes fertility would improve by running bulls, but chooses not to as it would be hard to manage them away from the heifers.

“We like to keep cows comfortable and have a system of brushes that they can rub their backs and sides against.

Their condition in the winter has greatly improved, but it means that detection aids are not reliable,” she explains.

Reduced lameness is, however, a bonus with the Red Poll.

They have hard, dark hooves which are trimmed by a professional foot-trimmer every nine months.

When analysing milk quality, the composition of the milk is ideal for cheese-making.

The herd averages 3.3% protein and 3.8% fat. But it is the type of fat which is important. She likens it to homogenised milk with small, well-dispersed particles.

Mrs Jones has also taken a keen interest in developing the bloodlines for milk quality, improved conformation and udders.

“Red Polls tend to be rather heavy and short in the leg with a pendulous udder, but we have been breeding for the longer legged, finer-boned dairy like Red Poll,” she said.

The breed delivers well for her purposes, but as her Red Poll dairy herd is the only one in Wales why aren’t other milk producers going down this route?

She believes it comes down to farmers being conventional and targeting high yielding breeds.

But she believes this trait doesn’t necessarily equate to profit.

“Farmers are beginning to realise bottom line profit is most important,” she said.

“When you look at the Red Polls and take everything into account, their viability is financially sound.

” They are particularly suited to a farm which is looking at end marketing, suggests Mrs Jones.

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