Could it be time for a change of breed? Two
breeders believe they can offer a suitable alternative
to black-and-whites. Jeremy Hunt reports
LONGEVITY, hardiness, great feet and legs, and high quality milk – just some of the reasons why Yorkshire producer-processor Gordon Dearnley has switched from Holsteins to Meuse Rhine Issel cattle.
Every drop of the 4.3% fat milk produced on this 102ha (245-acre) farm is processed and retailed from the premises, 180m (600ft) up on the hills above Huddersfield. There is an award-winning icecream parlour on the farm, a waiting list of retailers wanting cream, expanding sales of home-made butter and a bottling plant. Bottled milk is sold on their own milk rounds and several others.
Milk comes from a herd of 240 dairy cows begun by Mr Dearnley and his wife, Betty, 40 years ago, when they had a cottage without electricity and 2.4ha (6 acres).
Although the first MRI cattle did not arrive until 1996, this red-and-white coated breed from Holland and Germany has had a significant impact on this family-run dairy business. "I was fed-up with lame Holstein cows and was ready for a change of breed. I went to an MRI open day and that was it," says Mr Dearnley, who has just hosted an open day for the British MRI Cattle Society.
With in-calf heifers sourced from Holland, Germany and the UK, the herd has gradually expanded. Now there are 200 purebred MRIs being milked at Barkhouse Farm, Shelley.
"They are docile, easy to work with, very easy calving, produce good quality milk on a simple system and there is a nice bonus of £70 for week-old bull calves. I am totally hooked on the MRI," says Mr Dearnley.
All youngstock are reared on contract, with heifers returning to the farm just before calving. The herds average yield is about 6000kg at 4.34% fat. While that may not be impressive compared with a black-and-white herd, Mr Dearnley reckons he is in a strong position to evaluate the breed in terms of overall profitability rather than sheer volume of milk produced.
"We have only been in this breed a short time and I know from the genetics we have been using that heifers coming into the herd over the next few years will bring a marked increase in yield. But even at the current level of production these cows are profitable because of their wearability, their low maintenance costs, and their health and vigour."
The herd is cubicle housed and has access to silage in ring-feeders and at the silage face. A 20% protein concentrate is fed in the parlour – individual cow intakes are about 1.5t.
"You could not get a more basic system and we have some cows giving up to 7500kg," says Mr Dearnley.
There is no shortage of cows giving five-figure yields in Holland and the breed society says there are plenty of UK herds averaging 8000kg, a level of production which can be maintained for eight and nine lactations from trouble-free cows.
Although there is no shortage of MRI cattle in the breeds homeland, sourcing large numbers to found a new herd from UK-bred stock would be a difficult job.
"But black-and-white breeders wanting to tap into traits of wearability could use an MRI bull and produce crossbred heifers to start with. We have crossed a proportion of our remaining black-and-whites and they are fantastic cattle."
In the 1980s, when the breed was initially imported, UK breeders were deprived access to top Dutch and German genetics because of routine vaccination for foot-and-mouth.
The end of vaccination has seen an influx of top sires from Holland and Germany, with one semen company offering 14 bulls to UK breeders. Some of the latest top-liners are out of cows giving between 12,000-13,400kg.
Mr Dearnley believes there has never been a better time for the MRI. "This is a tough time for producers, but working with this breed will form the basis of our next expansion phase. We are planning more stock accommodation to increase our milkers to about 270."
The herd is now run by the Dearnleys son, Michael. His sister, Janet Cartwright, manages the icecream parlour and the tea-rooms.
RECENT months have seen a big rise in demand for MRI semen from black-and-white herd owners, says Angela Diment of the Somerset-based Woodlands MRI herd, which has supplied stock to the Dearnleys.
"More commercial Holstein herds are trying to introduce hybrid vigour and some of the hard-wearing traits of the MRI into their cattle. You would be surprised how many dairy herds want to change their breed totally, but are just afraid to make the move.
"It has been easier to stick with what you have always had, but when that is losing you money things start to become unbearable and producers have to do something about it. Many producers are already in the last-chance saloon and changing breed may be the only way out."
Mrs Diment is convinced more milk producers will look at the entire package and not just at high yields which cannot be sustained long term. Her own herd has a replacement rate of 15%, several percent lower than the national average. She also says the MRIs cell count is officially rated by NMR as the lowest of any breed being milked in the UK.
"All that, plus the bull calf income and an extra 2p/litre earned from the higher quality milk, easily compensates for any shortfall in production compared with black-and-whites." *
• High milk fat %.
• Good yields.
• Healthier cows.
Gordon Dearnley started introducing MRI cattle by importing animals from abroad, but now he has bred many of his own and numbers have reached 200. They are docile, easy to work with, and easy calving.