1 February 2002


Tough cows with good

functional type are needed

to survive the rigours of

long winters on a hill farm.

Jeremy Hunt reports

STRIKING a balance between type and production is an ongoing challenge faced by many producers, but breeding decisions are even more critical for those producing milk off the hills.

The Drinkall family believe its vital to breed cows which can perform profitably in the environment of a hill farm.

Tom Drinkall, a past president of Holstein UK and Ireland, farms with his nephew John and his wife, Elaine, at Catshaw Farm, near Lancaster. Land is heavy and it suffers under downpours which contribute to an annual rainfall of 1.5m (60in).

Catshaw Farm lies on the Duke of Westminsters Abbeys-tead Estate. It extends to 163ha (407 acres) of mowable and grazeable grass, plus 375ha (937 acres) of fell. Land rises from 90m (300ft) in the valley bottom to 420m (1400ft) on the fell tops. It is stocked with 400 cattle – milkers and youngstock – and 1000 Swaledale ewes.

"Ground conditions and climate are the two most limiting factors. These combine to give us a short grazing season. The land here is very heavy and doesnt dry out easily," says John Drinkall.

But the family tries to offset the farms environmental constraints by capitalising on the depth of breeding behind the herds 160 cows and by skillful use of Holstein bulls.

The herd, which carries the Pennine prefix, calves all year round. This long-standing policy allows the Drinkalls to continue the family tradition as consignors of top quality calved heifers – about six a month – at Lancaster Auction Mart. It also means they can fulfil a level delivery milk contract with Zenith.

Although John says they dont push their cows, regular sale-ring buyers of Pennine heifers say the Drinkalls cattle always know how to fend for themselves. The herd average is 7700kg at 4.1% fat and 3.2% protein.

"We aim to produce genuine, hard-wearing dairy cows that can go away from here, perform and last under far more intensive conditions."

But coping with the rigours of long winters spent on concrete requires the correct conformation for hard-wearing cows which will last in the herd.

"We want at least five lactations out of our cows, but we have plenty still milking after eight and nine calves."

This makes conformation a priority when selecting AI sires, says John. "But we must balance functional type with production and keep a close eye on milk quality."

He admits its not easy trying to maintain a breeding policy which produces cows modern enough to attract the buyers, but equally functional enough to fit into a hill farming system.

But a string of modern sires have had a marked influence, he adds. Among them are the best bulls to come from the Hanoverhill herd – Raider, Inspiration, Logic and Lincoln as well as Boulet Charles, Maplewood Ideal, Startmore Supreme and Madawasaka Aerostar.

"We have daughters from many of the most fashionable bulls that are between fifth and eighth calvers. They are performing and wearing well.

"Because our old cow families go back to some really deep-bodied Friesians, our type has been able to withstand the Holstein influence without the risk of going to extreme.

"On a farm like this, it is vital to maintain a cow type that gives us capacity and strength, and we avoid any bulls which could leave us with cattle which are too narrow.

"Our latest crop of calved heifers includes some daughters of sons of Blackstar and Ked Juror. They look promising – modern, but with no sign of narrowness."

Most of the Pennine herds cow families trace their ancestry back 50 years. The Poppy family has produced some of the most notable cattle with over 730 of them registered.

John and Elaine Drinkall aim to breed cows with the type to survive Catshaw Farms tough hill environment.

&#8226 Must be hard-wearing.

&#8226 Long winter on concrete.

&#8226 Need good functional type.

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