Back to the days when Holsteins had horns

22 March 2002

Back to the days when Holsteins had horns

Whats in a name? Todays black and white dairy cow has

undergone several name changes in almost a century of

pedigree breeding. Jeremy Hunt delves into the past

THERE are horns in the hallway at The Woodlands, mounted proudly on the walls of this rambling Staffordshire mansion, each with an inscription beneath. They are a tribute to cows of a time long past – a time when Holsteins had horns.

Before the doyens of black and white cows start getting hot under the collar about an ignorant error of nomenclature on my part, may I remind them the Friesian did not come first.

Here, on the edge of Stoke-on-Trent, lies a fascinating insight into the beginnings of pedigree black and white cattle breeding in Britain – and the Holstein, complete with horns, is where it all began.

The Woodlands is owned by Aberdeen-bred Morton Law whose uncle, Alec Steel, was responsible for the skilful post-war management and ultimate success of the Shopland herd in Essex which produced so many well-known show winners including the remarkable cow Shopland Edleet Ruth 6th.

In 1970 Mr Law joined the family farm in Essex to work with the Shopland cattle but you have to go back another generation, to Alec Steel Snr, grandfather of Morton Law, to discover how his legacy of several boxes of old books discloses the true foundations of todays black and white dairy cows.

The Shopland herd was dispersed in 1991 and among the memorabilia of dairy farming spanning almost a century was a vast collection of herd books detailing the earliest records of black and white cow breeding in Britain.

By far the most fascinating of these meticulously maintained editions is entitled: The British Holstein Cattle Herd Book, Vol 1 and embossed on the cover are the words "Bulls, Nos 1-206 and Cows, Nos 1-1612".

This was the start of it all and it will surprise many younger black and white devotees that there was no mention of the British Friesian at this stage of the breeds emergence onto the UK dairy scene.

The first volume of the herd book is dated 1910 and names HRH Prince Christian of Schleswig-Holstein KG as its president. The secretary was William J Clark of the Stock Breeders Sale Register Office, Alport, Bakewell.

There are almost 60 members listed in Vol 1 followed by the societys rules which were approved at its founding the previous year in 1909 at the Royal Show held at Gloucester on Jun 23. Annual membership was £1 and all animals entered in the herd book had to undergo inspection by the society.

Mr Clark, who also acted as editor of the herd book, wrote in Vol 1: "No doubt the generality of breeders are fully aware that formerly Holstein cattle were imported into Great Britain from Holland but for some considerable time now this importation has been prohibited and in consequence it has been impossible to get further supplies of these wonderful dairy animals."

&#42 Entire extinction

It was because of breeders concerns that limited supplies of Holsteins from Holland could lead to either the breed becoming in-bred or crossed that the society was formed – "to prevent these very useful animals from entire extinction".

Several herd profiles appear in the first volume. The Bendrose herd, owned by Ernest Forwood at Amersham, Bucks was believed to have been in existence for over 50 years when these records were made in 1910.

Referring to the Bendrose stock, the herd book states: "Both bulls and cows were from the finest strains that could be obtained in Holland and no expense was spared in their purchase."

Milk records show the dam of one of the herds best bulls to have given 1428gal (6490 litres) in 1902 with daily yields up to 31lb (14 litres). It is also noted that one of the herds highest yielders gave 2060gal (9364 litres) during a 20-month lactation.

The Kingsdon herd, owned by J F Neal, Taunton, Somerset, prides itself on using "pure-bred Holstein bulls on a herd of deep milking, large-framed dairy cows".

Mr Neal states that all young stock and dry cows are wintered-out and the in-milk cows are only housed at night "during the worst of the winter".

The Pebsham herd was founded in 1886 by HP Ratcliffe at Bexhill, Sussex where one of his best "pure Holstein" cows attracted attention in the local press.

"In the seven years and 10 months between 1890 and 1897 she bore seven calves and yielded the enormous quantity of 11,300gal (51,400 litres) of milk weighing 50tons, 8cwt. She milked 339 weeks which averages over 33gal (150litres)/week."

A sale from the Pebsham herd in August 1909 put 80 head under the hammer across all age ranges. The sale average was £17 11s 6d with some stock bought for export to the Argentine Republic.

Paperwork and health checks may be the biggest headache facing importers of livestock today, but the sheer logistics of moving large numbers of dairy cattle did not deter the dealers of the 1800s.

The "Metropolitan Market" – presumably in London – is mentioned in Vol 1 and provided British dairy farmers with 150 dairy cows each week "freshly imported from Holland". And it was from these regular consignments of stock – all hand-milked during the Channel crossing – that J T Chambers established his Tredegar herd on the North Weald in Essex.

&#42 Onset of war

But in 1915 things were to change. The onset of war and the anti-German feeling in the UK forced the hierarchy of the British Holstein Cattle Society to change its name to the British Friesian Cattle Society and so it was to remain until the name once again became fused with the Holstein as Canadian imports imposed an increasing influence on British pedigrees.

Morton Law muses on the latest U-turn taken again by the breed, the society which changed its name to Holstein UK and Ireland returning, almost, to its original title of almost a century ago.

"The Shopland herd collected three consecutive Royal Show championships in the 1970s and there was no way that any Holstein breeding was going to be allowed to dilute these great cow families.

"When the Shopland herd was dispersed in 1991 all the cows were pure British Friesians – but it does seem strange that the breeding we strived so hard to maintain was actually referred to as Holstein in the first registrations of the breed back in 1910."

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