Livestock Heroes: The Fortland Holsteins

Porcupines, peat moss and an 18-year-old cow that’s given 110t of milk might not seem to have very much in common, but for Lancashire dairy farmer Jimmy Hull and his family each has played its part in the history of their successful Fortland Holstein herd.

You won’t find any porcupines at the Hull’s Gibstick Hall Farm, Winmarleigh, Garstang, but you’ll still see plenty of that rich, black, peat moss and certainly have no difficulty finding plenty of deeply bred Holstein cows – many descendants of the remarkable 18-year-old matron who has just yielded her latest flush of embryos.

Sitting in the heart of the Fylde and just a few miles from the coast and Morecambe Bay, the flat, grass-growing acres of this renowned patch of the north west has nurtured many renowned black and white herds – and the Fortland Holsteins are no exception. But it’s the road to Gibstick Hall Farm – where some of the land is just 3m above sea-level – that reveals the true nature of this landscape.

For long stretches the fields are well below road level. This is Grade 2 moss land which can grow just about anything, but it’s a constant challenge farming on moss land like this that’s so prone to flooding, says Leslie Hull.

Farming here is dependent on government agencies for the management of the many miles of tidal dykes that traverse this area. But it’s something that’s causing concern to the Hull family – and to other local farmers – who say current drainage policies could jeopardise the future of these low-lying moss land holdings.

It was just over 50 years ago that Jimmy Hull, then 23, and his wife Nancy, took the tenancy of their first farm – a 6.88ha (17 acre) steading at nearby Forton – a Duchy of Lancaster farm that had attracted 150 applications from prospective tenants. Gradually a few pedigree cows were added to the commercial Friesian milkers, but within five years another Duchy tenancy came available just a few miles away and in 1962 Jimmy and Nancy moved to the 48.5ha (120 acre) Gibstick Hall Farm.

With additional land acquired over the years, the Hull family now farm 137.6ha (340 acres). The 198 milkers – including 70 heifers – have produced a current rolling herd average of 10,164kg putting the herd in the country’s top 25% on production. The farm grows 28.3ha (70 acres) of maize and the same area of wheat – all of which is home fed as part of a complete ration. The herd is milked twice a day and there is no additional in-parlour or out of parlour feeding.

There were shippons for 42 milkers at Gibstick Hall Farm, but those tyings quickly became home to some of the early purchases of well-bred pedigree cows whose successful families still thrive here today. Among the most well known are the prolific Buddleias who trace back to a 1962 purchase from the Rutland herd of leading Cheshire breeder of the day Cyril Platt.

Jimmy Hull still has the catalogue from the Rutland sale which shows every animal on offer tracing back to the Dutton Friesian herd.

“Everyone grew oats then and I can remember thinking that 4t of oats had paid for the Buddleia cow,” says Jimmy who gave 82gns for her. With careful additions from proven cow families the pedigree foundations of the herd were laid – always based on families with plenty of milk and high butterfats. Among the other cow families now well established at Fortland are the Enids, Chantrys and the Genevieves.

Influential Friesian bulls in the early days were Hunday Adema 6 and Hunday Paul, but it was Holmside Static that really left his stamp.

“Static was a Holstein before his time,” says Jimmy.” We bought him from the Wilson family who had the Rigmer herd at Broughton-in-Furness. He was out of the good Mystic family bred by Dick Gladstone and he really gave us type, milk and fat.” Static was later sold to Herdwise.

The great Lavenham Gryndol also played his part. Sons of both Static and Gryndol found ready customers at the annual Lancashire club’s bull sales at Lancaster as the Fortland prefix emerged onto the pedigree scene.

“It’s strange to look back now and think we were doing well if we got 1100 gallons out of a lactation,” recalls Jimmy. He soon became involved with the thriving Lancashire and Adjacent Counties British Friesian Breeders Cub joining its committee, moving on to chairman and ultimately president.

Growing Family

With a growing family of three children – Leslie, Andrew and Sally – Jimmy and Nancy Hull’s Fortland herd quickly made a name for itself in an area of Lancashire where so many top successful herds were emerging in the 1970s and 1980s.

To gain experience away from home, 1976 saw Andrew working for a year with the Rice-Evans family who ran the Deri herd which produced the 60,000gns top priced bull at the breed society’s bull sale at Reading in the same year.

Highest priced bull sold by the Fortland herd was Fortland Boy George that made 4600gns at Lancaster in the 1980s. He was a son of Brynhyfryd Cascade and out of the good Buddleia family.

But the Holstein’s promise of higher yields was beckoning and, like many fellow breeders, Jimmy headed for Canada in 1982. The Fortland cows were already developing as a “sharper type” among their Friesian contemporaries – something that had largely been influenced by Holmside Static. But the trip to Canada left Jimmy with one impression of Holstein cows – “they were awesome”.

Holstein semen was introduced when Jimmy returned from Canada and it was bulls like Glendrummond Delegate and Joylan USA that began to take the Fortland cows into a new era.

“The Holstein was giving us more production, but we weren’t losing type. We could see we had to be careful not to criss-cross Holstein and Friesian genetics. We tried it, but it just didn’t work for us. It was pure Holstein – and we just kept going,” says Andrew Hull.

Three influential cow families all going back to the same cow came from Lorne Loveridge’s Glenridge herd in Canada formed the backbone. But it was another pair of heifers that came later from the same herd that really made an impression at Fortland.

It’s 18 years since Glenridge Rivers – by Hanoverhill Inspiration and Glenridge Star Ritual – by Hanoverhill Starbuck – arrived at Gibstick Hall Farm. Rivers went on to stand second as an in-milk heifer at the Royal Show while Star Ritual has proved to be the family’s “cow of a lifetime”.

She has gone Excellent seven times and gave 110t of milk in 11 lactations. ” She has been a tremendous cow, a real boss cow and still is,” says Andrew Hull.

Glendridge Star

Glenridge Star Ritual EX94 7E 5* LP110 created the Roxette family at Fortland and her Five Star Brood Cow status proves her achievements. Although a predominant producer of bulls she has also left several Excellent daughters. Star Ritual, whose Broker and Juniper Park daughters are among her best, has been flushed to Toy Story, Howie, Goldwyn and Shottle and is currently being flushed to Cogent Mordor.

High type bulls are used at Fortland with heifers by Shottle, Garrison and Argument featuring among the best. Early in the new year the Hull family will be calving the first heifers by a Shottle son bought privately from Smiddiehill and out of the Rudolph Anna family. And there are some smart daughters of a Goldwyn son bought from the Berryholm herd and going back to Tom Cope’s great show cow Cardsland Flo.

Although there are always heifers for sale from the Fortland herd, recent years has seen more retained as the herd has been expanded. And now some new families are being established following the purchase of five cows from the Alandrew herd – one being from the noted Coco family.

And it’s through this cow that Jimmy Hull will always remember the porcupines. “The Coco cow goes back to a cow I saw one night when I was in Canada at Glenridge with Lorne Loveridge all those years ago. That night I saw one of the best cows I have ever seen in my life. She was from the Cinderella family – and I’ll never forget seeing her almost in the dark with porcupines running around the field,” recalls Jimmy.

You certainly won’t find any porcupines running across the thick, grass swards at Gibstick Hall Farm, but you’ll certainly see a tremendous herd of Holstein cows whose success can be attributed to that most tried and trusted system – the family farm.