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Top production herd lifts profits with VikingRed

Isle of Man, United Kingdom

A former number one production herd in the UK has switched to VikingReds in a drive for a better lifestyle and higher profits.

Farming at Ballalough Farm, near Douglas on the Isle of Man, the Sanders family have always had a particular affinity with cows. Their Holstein herd not only became one of the highest yielding in the UK, averaging over 11,600 litres and 960kg of fat and protein in 2003/04.

Besides, it also boasts a record number of 100-tonne cows. Conformation has always been equally exceptional, with a high proportion of the herd classified Excellent and Very Good.

Andrew and Sue Sanders and their sons, Julian and Matthew were evidently a team who knew how to manage high-performance animals and loved the cows they milked. They seemed to have a herd and a business that had it all.


Switch of breeding

So, it may have come as something of a surprise when the family decided to make a major switch, not only to their production system but later, to their breed of cows.

Their journey away from the high production, intensively managed Holstein, began by reducing milking from three times to twice a day, and cutting production to closer to the national average.

“We came to the Isle of Man from our farm on the Shropshire-Herefordshire border in 1997 with around 140 cows, and in our early years on the island, Mum and Dad continued with the high production system,” explains Julian.

Only a schoolboy at the time of the move, he says his parents were attracted by the island’s lack of milk quota although he recognises, they probably located themselves on the most difficult part of the island.

Purchasing almost 400 acres and renting a further 200 acres, he says the land rises from 450 to 680 feet above sea level, and only 350 acres of the home farm are useable, the rest being woodland and scrub.


Drop in production

The Holsteins initially continued on their high yielding trajectory with some individuals giving 70 litres/day.

However, high yields and three-times milking were not conducive to grazing and as the herd increased in numbers, this became more of a challenge.

“We didn’t want to house for 365 days a year, but the large Holstein cows did not fare well when they were walking up to 4km a day for grazing,” he recalls.

“This situation put too much stress on the cows and it was largely because of this that we made the decision to switch to twice a day milking.”

With the switch came the inevitable drop in production which levelled at around 8,000 litres, leaving the family to reflect on the type of cow they were milking.

“The Holstein is an expensive cow to keep if you don’t get that much milk out of her,” he says. “At the time, we were also relying more on hired help for the growing herd, so we really wanted an animal that was easier to look after.”


Looking for the perfect deal

The family also surmised that if they changed their 750kg cow for one which weighed 600kg without losing fat and protein production, they would have something cheaper to keep and easier to manage.

With payment from the Isle of Man Creamery based on kg fat and protein this further precipitated a move in this direction. “Our original plan was to use a mixture of British Ayrshire and Scandinavian Red cattle (VikingRed), but it didn’t take long to realise that the VikingRed had more production and better health traits,” he admits.

Other breeds were also tried: “Some were superb; some were too big and beefy, although perhaps I chose the wrong bulls’; some which udders and type were an issue, especially for Dad’; and the there were also some that had so much kicking we would have lost our staff!”, he recalls.

Julian Sanders UK

Introducing VikingReds in the herd

“Eventually, we took the decision to introduce the VikingRed in 2007, starting with just 13 born in the first year,” he says. “We initially kept them recorded as a separate herd as Dad wanted to compare their performance with the Holstein.”

Finding the Reds to produce a slightly lower volume of milk but a similar weight of fat and protein, he says the result on the milk cheque was comparable to the Holsteins.


Better finance for the family farm

However, other notable changes had a major effect on performance and have gone on to have a profound effect on finances and the make-up of the herd.

“We knocked 15 days off calving interval with the first cross and slashed the cost of feed through the change of system,” he says.

“Veterinary costs have come way down as everything to do with health has improved. We don’t trim a lot of VikingRed feet, mastitis still occurs but not like before, and we get no displaced abomasums and very little milk fever.”

Today, the family-run a herd which comprises over 500 head, of which 320 are VikingRed and 250 black and white.

“We didn’t set out to have more red and whites but because they were more successful at getting in calf, their numbers have increased,” he says.


More feed efficiency

“The whole herd is now fed a flat rate of 3kg concentrates per milking in the parlour [6kg/day], which is just barley and some cake, plus grazed grass or baled silage,” he says.

The mixer wagon, which was ‘costing money to run’, and the out of parlour feeders, which were previously delivering up to 13kg/day to the Holsteins, were all sold.

The overall concentrate feed rate has therefore declined to around 1.8 tonnes per cow per year – around half that of the intensively managed herd.

Production today stands at 8,000 litres at 4.3% fat and 3.4% protein under what Julian describes as a ‘traditional system’.

“We have put in tracks which improve access to grazing and have split the 350-acre grazing platform into 44 paddocks. These are rotationally grazed, which improves grass production and helps extend the grazing season,” he says.

Sanders family

Selection based on £PLI and NTM

Today, the herd is bred to VikingRed, and, with no livestock purchases made since 1977, most Ayrshire cows are now seven-eighths VikingRed.

The VikingReds are chosen with care, initially on a screening of both £PLI and NTM (Nordic Total Merit) and then drilling down for specific traits.

“I pay attention to chest width as we don’t want narrow cows, and choose good udder bulls,” he says. “Feet and legs are not a concern as they are so good across the breed.

“Mum and Dad were always keen on pedigree and we continue to classify with both the Ayrshire Cattle Society and Holstein UK as we like to have pretty cows.”

Still achieving many EX and VG classifications in both their VikingReds and black and whites, they also achieve long lifespans, with daughters of sires like Pell Pers and Gunnarstorp amongst the most successful.


Bottom line in focus

Culling rate has dropped to 9% and around 150 heifers are sold for breeding each year, plus some older cows. VikingRed sexed semen is also successfully used, with some inseminations to British Blue.

Alongside this, the Sandersfarms herd has become the highest £PLI herd registered with the Ayrshire Cattle Society. But at the end of the day, what really matters to this family farm is their bottom line.

“I don’t really care about anything else,” says Julian. “There are people out there who have cut costs to the bone, but I am happy to buy in food if it means I make money feeding it.

“You can lie to yourself all you want but it has to make money at the end of the day and this system is doing that for us.”

Sanders farm UK

Ballalough Farm facts

  • Former top production herd of Holsteins giving 11,600 litres (3x)
  • Switched to twice-a-day and cut feed, to yield 8,000 litres
  • Reviewed breed for new system and changed to VikingRed
  • Health costs of VikingReds slashed, improving the bottom line
  • Have produced 120 cows exceeding 100 tonnes of milk, and rising
  • Continue to classify, with many EX and VG cows of both breeds.
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Julian Sanders herd

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