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ProCROSS increases profitability for cheesemakers

Shropshire farmers and prize-winning cheesemakers, Paul and Sarah Appleby made some radical changes to the way they farmed for the sake of the environment, their family, and their profitability. Read about their transition to ProCROSS and a better life.

Paul and Sarah Appleby are walking their herd, taking time to watch for signs of imminent calving amongst this late gestation group, and quietly sharing their observations with their young daughter, Dotty.

It’s a scorching day at the end of a long, hot summer; the drought has taken its toll on the yellowing swards and the grazing is being carefully managed to ensure the cows are full and the grass can recover when the rain eventually arrives.

The Applebys are a family committed to their land and at ease with their way of farming. They are happy with the knowledge that they are producing milk sustainably – in harmony with their ethical principles – encouraging biodiversity, capturing carbon and supporting the lifestyle they crave for their five children.

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

A historical cheesemaking family

At the heart of Hawkstone Abbey Farm is the 350-head herd, all bar a handful of which are in the last three weeks of gestation at this point, and every one primed to produce milk for the Applebys’ prize-winning Cheshire cheese, with which the family has earned international acclaim.

In the distance, is the rambling 18th-century farmhouse, where the cheese is made in a dairy adjoining the family kitchen – the exact same location where Paul’s grandparents founded Appleby’s Dairy 70 years earlier – and which today they believe is one of just a handful of kitchen dairies left in the business.

But only six years ago, the family were on the treadmill of a high-input system with year-round housing, and were contemplating milking three times a day in an attempt to turn in a profit.

“The cheese had become our cash cow,” says Paul. “It was propping up the business, but we needed to make the dairy herd profitable in its own right.

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

Going through changes

“We had plenty of discussions around the kitchen table and we knew we weren’t in a position to increase inputs in our predominately Holstein herd,” he says. “It didn’t suit us, nor the ethics of the farm and importantly, our very traditional cheesemaking.”

“We knew we wanted to be less intensive and dramatically lessen the cost of production, whilst ensuring the dairy herd and our family had a future here,” adds Sarah.

At about the same time, changes in the wider family led to a contraction in the acreage Paul and Sarah farmed, which declined from over 700 acres (283ha) to around 300 acres (121ha) today.

“We knew an extended autumn block calving system would suit the farm and the cheesemaking,” says Paul. “We had the infrastructure to house in winter and costed out the addition of tracks, fencing and troughs to graze in summer. We were totally committed to making these changes and within a very short time, the cows were able to access all the grazing. We are extremely fortunate that the buildings are in the centre of the land and the distance to paddocks is relatively short.

“The change in demands made on the cows gave us the opportunity to reconsider our breeding and find an animal more suited to block calving and paddock grazing,” he adds. “We wanted the cows to be part of the cycle and system.”

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

Switching to ProCROSS

In this process, their attention was caught by the ProCROSS, the three-way rotation which alternates the Holstein, Montbéliarde and VikingRed breeds. The couple could see the virtues of melding these bloodlines and knew the system of doing so had been rigorously tested.

“A lot of research has been done on combining these breeds,” says Paul, who appreciated being able to build on his existing herd base. He knew this would maintain the high production potential and good udder conformation of the Holstein but add the fertility and health for which the VikingRed is renowned, and the robustness and body condition of the Montbéliarde.

“I remember watching some 1950s footage of cows walking past our buildings,” he remarks. “They were all shapes and colours – not unlike those we have today. Of course, the VikingRed did originate from Ayrshires and that type of bloodline, and I’d say our cows today have more similar traits to the cows that were here in the past.”

In fact, the ProCROSS system has been proven to produce thoroughly modern cattle, with high production potential and the ability to convert feed efficiently into milk. And although the precise mechanisms for this feed conversion efficiency have not been pinpointed, a combination of good health and consistent body condition are likely to play a part. They are also known to have better fertility and longevity than their black and white counterparts.

“We were able to visit some local ProCROSS herds at different stages of their journey and were impressed with the cows’ performance,” says Paul. “That convinced us we were definitely heading down the right genetic track for our farm’s success.

“Relationships are also very important to us, and we like VikingGenetics as a company to work with, and the support they give,” he adds.

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

Better genetics, better cows

The couple began by using VikingRed across the board for two years and the Montbéliarde was introduced on the VikingRed cross heifers.

“I particularly like the Monty breed – I have seen them in France on the hills and admired their strength and durability, whatever the weather. Their offspring are easy to rear with a higher value to the bull calf than the pure Holstein,” he says. “Nowadays, selecting the right genetics for your herd is of utmost importance, and we are always mindful of producing milk with good constituents for our cheesemaking.”

Today, it remains early days for the new herd and system, but big changes have been noticed both on the ground and in the books.

The system is much simpler,” says Paul. “Weather permitting, the calves are turned out to grass in March, where they are rotationally grazed, before housing and service in winter.

“They are fed simply in that time and achieve an average age at first calving of 24 months.”

Increased solid production and profit

Production for the young herd now stands at just under 8,000 litres at 4.3% fat and 3.5% protein, and with a high proportion of heifers, this is projected to rise.

“I am not worried about what they are giving. I am more concerned about what it costs to get it. I have to move my mind away from output – it’s what it costs per litre that matters,” he says, alluding to the 9,000 litres at 4.1% fat and 3.3% protein produced under the previous system. “As Sarah’s family puts it, ‘yield is vanity and profit is sanity’.”

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

More fertile, feed-efficient cows

The feed rate before of over 0.45kg/litre of bought-in concentrates has now declined to around 0.30kg/litre. This is mirrored in milk from forage which is edging towards 4,000 litres, from a low base.

Vet and med costs have been reduced and dry cow antibiotics have been cut from blanket use to 5% of the herd.

Chalk is still used for heat detection and fertility has improved, with a 21% pregnancy rate and 47% conception rate. The replacement rate is also in decline.

Such is the confidence in reproductive performance that sexed dairy semen – currently used on heifers – will be used on many cows, with Wagyu semen or a Hereford stock bull reserved for use after six weeks of breeding.

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

Easy-to-manage cows

“None of this is revolutionary but it’s all progressing in the right direction, and we still have a lot of Holsteins and a young herd,” says Paul.

He admits it’s hard to disentangle the system benefits from those of the breed, but says the new cattle are better at looking after themselves and need less intervention.

“Some of it is a system change but we now have the cows to do it,” he explains. “The cows we are breeding suit the grazing and forage, and are thriving on the cut in concentrate inputs.”

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

Better relationship with the land and cows

When it comes to costs he says it’s difficult to compare in the face of escalating inflation, but says fertiliser use per acre has been cut in half and – with a complete switch away from any arable as the farm halved in size – tractor use is down by 1,000 hours per year.

“We try not to disturb the soil now and rarely plough,” he says.

Tending to over-seed rather than reseed, he says red and white clover, herbal leys and lucerne are all part of the new and future rotations, with the goal of producing all required protein and just buying in starch.

“It’s still very much in progress,” he insists. “But everyone is happier, and we have more of a relationship with the land and our cows.”

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

A happier life

Sarah emphasises the positive effect the changes have had on job satisfaction, and, as the daughter of an organic farmer from the other side of Shropshire, was keen to see them through.

“I was not the catalyst for change, but I knew we could do it better,” she says. “There have been plenty of hurdles along the way, but we have never been more certain that this is the way we want to farm.”

Today, she says the farm is an important part of the community, with interest from many sources ranging from schools and the Brownies to Open Farm Sunday and those with an interest in heritage cheese, of which Cheshire is the oldest.

“Once you have found your farm’s vision and purpose you can set out to achieve it,” she says. “Sharing our challenges and discoveries along the way has been rewarding and we look forward to stewarding a healthy business into the future.”

ProCROSS UK Appleby Farm

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