A CUMBRIAN dairy farming couple have endorsed their commitment to milk production, thanks to their choice of cattle.
The breed which has given Gary and Kate Simpson the faith to continue is the French red-and-white Montbeliarde – because of its ease of care, low feeding and labour input and high milk constituent value.
The 90 cows also have the ability to thrive on the exposed land at Knock Cross Farm, Knock, Appleby, which is 175 acres, a fifth of it rough grazing.
Before 2001’s foot-and-mouth epidemic, the Simpsons were milking British Friesians, but on restocking they came across the Montbeliardes in the Midlands.
“I remember coming home so impressed by what we saw – the strength of feet and legs, the production and what the calves were selling for,” said Gary.
“We were unable to find Friesians we wanted and knew Holsteins would not do well here.”
Despite concentrating on milking cows, Gary and Kate have shied away from making big investments in the dairy business, looking to contain costs and compromise on what many producers are currently following – putting on more and more cows and adding further to inputs.
They have, however, consolidated their commitment to dairying and invested in a new 10x20 swing over parlour to replace their outdated system.
In January 2002, 68 youngstock and one pedigree bull purchased from a herd in St Austell, Cornwall, arrived at Knock Cross, ranging from fortnight old calves to in-calf heifers. Five years on, the Simpsons are convinced that their decision was right.
Gary said: “We think our future will be red-and-white. We’re getting more milk than from the Friesians – 1,000kg a lactation – and the beef calves are probably worth more.
“We are also getting a better price for our milk from Dairy Farmers of Britain because of the high levels of fat and protein.”
Gary has a list of Montbeliarde breeders and those running black-and-white herds for dairy stock, and cross-bred calves from the herd are sold directly off the farm due to demand.
The herd is averaging 4.5% butterfat and 3.5% protein with a combined average weight of fat and protein of 555kg for cows and 488kg for heifers, giving an average milk price for cows and heifers of 19ppl.
Yields of milk, fat and protein have all increased for the herd from 7,402 litres at 4.1 fat and 3.44 protein in 2005.
Initially, all the cows were pure bred, but under the current breeding programme the lower yielders are crossed with the Belgian Blue and month old calves are selling for £170 to £250 a head.
Purebred Montbeliarde bull calves can be £120 greater value than the Holstein equivalent. For a herd averaging 8,000 litres this difference in calf price is an extra 1.5p on top of the milk price. Rigorous selection of potential breeding bulls means that up to 15 bulls are finished each year for bull beef, further adding to the herd’s value.
Gary is a council member of the British Montbeliarde Cattle Society, which now has more than 5,000 cattle registered and admits the new breed has proved a learning curve because, particularly in the early days of their herd, there was little information for new breeders available in English.
Today the Montbeliarde, with nearly 400,000 recorded cows in France, is the country’s second-largest dairy breed as well as in Ireland, in both numbers of animals and in total milk production. It is the only breed that is currently increasing in France. At Knock Cross the feeding system is kept simple, based on grass silage and wholecrop wheat grown on 12 to 15 acres fed through a simple feeder wagon and 1.5 tonnes per cow of an 18% protein cake fed in the parlour.
With the new herd, the Simpsons have also tuned their grazing management to enable an extended grazing period, allowing cows an extra two weeks at grass during both the autumn and spring.
The herd calves all the year round with heifers calving at 26 months old and the aim of maintaining a 650kg cow, which is the ultimate grazing machine which can milk very easily, says Gary.