Selling a herd of pedigree Holsteins to fund grazing infrastructure, a new parlour and 252 crossbred cows has put John Churchouse at least seven years ahead of a gradual conversion.
Having calved in the spring for the first time this year, the crossbred herd is earning income and repaying debt.
“We’re making money. We have borrowed, but can pay this off in seven years and I reckon we are saving £700 a month in diesel alone, when I think of the tractors we had for scraping out, bedding up, hauling slurry and carting silage around,” says Mr Churchouse, who runs Manor Farm, Castle Cary, Somerset, with his son Russell.
Having decided to change to a spring block-calving, grazing system, he was clear he didn’t want to breed his ideal cow. “I’m over 60 years old and I wanted to get where I wanted to be, not waste time getting there. It was a difficult decision to sell the herd and start again. But we knew we could buy the right kind of cow and I think breeding out what you have just fudges the whole issue of changing system.”
Until 2010, Manor Farm ran a typical high input/high output herd averaging 9,000 litres a cow a year from a TMR. Cows calved from October until April, fertility was difficult and Mr Churchouse describes vet bills as “horrendous”.
“We were making a lot of maize and grass silage, but we weren’t making money – we had to do something about it. And we wanted to improve our lifestyle. The thought of not milking in December and January, while being able to afford to spend time with family was appealing.”
Joining a DairyCo discussion group and visiting other farms to help learn about rotational grazing also tapped into a network of producers with cows for sale. Once the 150 Holsteins plus youngstock were sold in January 2011, averaging £1,400 a head, Mr Churchouse set the farm up and began sourcing cows. The in-calf cows and heifers were bought for about £1,000 a head from four herds in England, Wales and Eire.
“We were looking for Friesian or Holstein x Jersey animals (preferably heifers) due to calve in February and March, budgeting for yields of 4,500 litres, mostly from grazing – and we wanted them clear of Johne’s,” he explains.
While it wasn’t possible to match every specification, he stuck to his requirement for cows calving on time to fill the bulk tank and breed replacements to fit the block. All except the Irish cows were viewed before purchase.
“Unfortunately, it wasn’t possible to get Johne’s-free stock, but all of herds were on a control scheme. Cows were pre-movement TB tested then vaccinated for IBR, leptospirosis, BVD and blackleg, the latter suggested as an added precaution because the herd grazes tightly and outwinters on forage crops.”
Disease is always the biggest risk when buying-in the right kind of cow, says DairyCo breeding specialist Andy Dodd. He also points out that crossbreeds appear to be more susceptible to digital dermatitis, while a DairyCo study is showing that they could also require more frequent foot trimming, although they suffer fewer sole ulcers. Some producers may even be surprised that crossbreeds have very different characteristics.
“If buying a very young herd, it may come as a shock after years of managing large-frame, docile Holsteins to discover slower growth rates in youngstock, less placid cows and initially less yield as they are slower maturing,” he says.
For those considering taking the plunge, therefore, Mr Dodd recommends: visiting and milking herds of a different breed.
“Breeding gives more control over progress and herds still seeking milk yield should build on their existing Holstein base,” he says.
“Buying could be the best option for those looking to completely change system for an easier lifestyle, or to better use farm resources. But make sure it’s the right decision. Once they have been sold that’s all of your genetics gone and you can’t get them back.”
Key considerations when buying in new herd
❚ Selling current genetics funds new cows
❚ Producing milk from day one
❚ Income repays investment from the start
❚ Bulling heifers best choice
❚ View cows, don’t just buy on paper
❚ Milk breeds before buying to assess temperament
❚ Assess biosecurity risk
❚ Beware slower growth rates
❚ Later-maturing cows and milk yields
❚ Use DairyCo’s Biosecurity Advice and Cattle Purchasing Checklist