Brown Swiss and Holstein pure breeds ‘a sound mix’

Pedigree Holstein breeders turned Brown Swiss enthusiasts and organic farmers turned conventional; brothers Jack and Barclay Taylor are no ordinary dairymen. JOANNE PUGH went to find out about the many changes the two have made to their business.

Developing an interest in Brown Swiss cattle has not stopped Jack Taylor and his brother Barclay remaining loyal to their first love – pedigree Holstein cattle.

Despite watching the debate over crossbreeding with interest, the brothers feel their best option is to keep the two breeds pure.

They milk 150 pedigree Holsteins and 100 pedigree Brown Swiss at Webscott Farm, Myddle, Shrewsbury, Shropshire, and describe the two breeds as an ‘ideal partnership’. The mix is certainly proving financially sound for two reasons – a higher milk price and strong demand for any stock they put up for sale.

Milk is sold to Belton Cheese, Whitchurch, Shropshire, a company that offers good bonuses for milk quality that produces maximum cheese yield, and the combination of Holstein and Brown Swiss milk has met the criteria well.

“The two breeds complement each other as the Holsteins give the high yields and the Brown Swiss a much better milk composition,” said Mr Taylor.

The herd is averaging 8,680 litres at 4.74 per cent butterfat and 3.65 per cent protein. Within that, the Holsteins are yielding 9,200 litres and the Brown Swiss 8,100. The Brown Swiss milk is 4.9 per cent butterfat and 3.8 per cent protein and that, according to Mr Taylor, is worth an extra 1.5ppl.

He and his brother came to Webscott Farm with 150 Holsteins in September 1988, having previously farmed in Lancashire and Cheshire.

However, the Brown Swiss cows did not appear until five years ago when the decision was made to increase the herd from 170 to 250 milking cows.

Mr Taylor said they ‘took the opportunity’ to consider different dairy breeds and were immediately drawn to the Brown Swiss. However, they could only source 10 pedigree cows and so these were added to the herd along with 50 Jerseys.

They soon found the Brown Swiss to be a ‘more economical milking unit’ and started breeding and buying in stock in order to increase numbers. The majority of the Jerseys were dispersed 12 months ago with the remaining youngstock sold at the end of last month.

“We managed to increase Brown Swiss numbers, so we decided we could dispense with the Jerseys,” said Mr Taylor. “The Brown Swiss were just a better option – they were giving 2,500 litres more milk, the cull cow market was much better and bull calves were selling for £40-50, whereas we were shooting the Jersey bull calves.

“The Brown Swiss is by far the easier to manage – they have a lower replacement rate, are better on fertility and calve more easily. We’ve never had milk fever in a Brown Swiss cow, which we found to be an issue with the Jerseys, and they have very few problems with their feet.

“They are ideal cows for our large, cubicle-based system. We believe the Brown Swiss has a lot to offer the British dairy industry – they’re a well-kept secret. We want milk, we want high production but we’re finding these cows are strong and powerful and easy to manage.”

Mr Taylor said they find the Brown Swiss cows will usually do six or seven lactations, whereas the Holsteins are ‘hard work’ after their fourth calf.

However, the brothers still have a lot of respect for the Holsteins and think a lot of the problems frequently associated with them are as much to do with management as breeding.

“We’ve very keen on Brown Swiss but we’re not anti-Holstein,” said Mr Taylor. “There’s nothing wrong with a Holstein if you’ve got the right type. We’re trying to get some strength back into the ones we have on this farm.”

The brothers converted to organic farming in 1997, so when the Brown Swiss cows first joined the Holsteins at Webscott Farm, it was for organic milk production.

However, a decision was made to convert back to conventional farming last year.

The change was not just prompted by a low milk price, but because the brothers felt they could not comply with the ‘draconian’ organic feed regulations introduced around that time.

Mr Taylor said that although the milk is now non-organic the land is still managed organically with no fertiliser used on the farm.

“The organic system did us very well and now we’re using the best of both,” said Mr Taylor. “We’ve taken what we think is the best of organic farming and the best of conventional farming.”

Since making the decision to come out of organic production, the focus is much more on making the most out of the milk contract with Belton Cheese. There is also an emphasis on flat lactations as the brothers feel this is kinder on the cows and means they do not lose body condition immediately after calving, something Mr Taylor said the Brown Swiss cows are naturally less inclined to do.

The cows are offered no feed in the parlour and given a basic TMR, which includes grass silage, alkalage and a 15 per cent protein blend.

The grass silage and wholecrop wheat for alkalage is all grown on the 330-acre farm with 290 acres dedicated to grass grazing and forage each year and 40 to wheat.

The grazing grass is a mixture of white clover with intermediate/late heading perennial rye grass and the grass for silage is a mixture of red clover, three-year hybrid and intermediate rye grass.

The herd is split according to yield with cows grazed in two groups in the summer and housed in four groups in the winter. Dry cows are fed a high fibre diet, housed during the winter and kept on very tight grazing in the summer.

AI is used on both the Brown Swiss cows and Holsteins all year round and the current calving index is 414 days. Cows are kept on straw yards for the first six weeks of their lactation and then moved into cubicles with sawdust over mattresses.

Calves are weaned at 10 weeks and reared in hutches for 12 weeks. They are then contract reared from six months with a target calving age of 27 months.

With a high number of heifers retained and regular Brown Swiss imports from Germany, Mr Taylor and his brother are in a position to sell quite a lot of Holstein and Brown Swiss animals.

“Milk production is still the mainstay of our business but it is definitely linked with selling cows,” he said.

“We’re interested in developing purebreds of both breeds because we think marketing stock is an important source of income. We’re not interested in milking 700 cows – I’d rather milk a few less cows and sell more stock.”

This year, over 40 milking cows and heifers have been sold, the Brown Swiss privately and the Holsteins through Beeston Market.

The Holsteins are a mixture of calved heifers and second and third calvers and this year have been very successful with the brothers taking three Western Holstein Club championships and selling two heifers for 3,400gns and 2,300gns a head.

The Brown Swiss animals sold are generally in-calf heifers, but Mr Taylor said they would look to sell older cows when numbers are high enough.

“If they look good and the price is right, we’ll sell them because we know we’ve got more coming through,” he said.

“Like every farmer, we have to send some to the slaughterhouse but we’d rather sell them before they get to that stage.”

According to Mr Taylor, the call for Brown Swiss animals is currently high and enquiries about them for crossbreeding are regular.

“There is a very strong demand for Brown Swiss bull calves – we could sell all of ours several times over,” he said. “They’re mostly going to Holstein herds for crossbreeding.”

With demand for the Brown Swiss breed as it is, the brothers have set up a sideline selling stock by importing in-calf heifers and the occasional bull. They take it in turns to travel to the continent, usually two or three times a year, to buy cattle for themselves and other people.

Mr Taylor said they are in a good position to do this as they know the best regions to visit and people to deal with as well as how to import the animals into the UK.

They have developed a relationship with a co-operative in Southern Germany – close to the border with Italy, Austria and France – and the most recent trip resulted in two lorries bringing 64 Brown Swiss cows to this country.

“We have many people asking us for stock,” said Mr Taylor.

“There wasn’t even any room on the lorry this time for us to bring some back for ourselves.”

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