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HomeDairy‘It is important for us to get plenty of heifer calves’ -...
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane
Catherina Cunnane hails from a sixth-generation drystock and specialised pedigree suckler enterprise in Co. Mayo. She currently holds the positions of editor and general manager at That's Farming, having joined the firm during its start-up phase in 2015.
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‘It is important for us to get plenty of heifer calves’ – 275-cow farmer

In this week’s dairy segment, That’s Farming, speaks to Andrew Patton of Ards Holsteins about his herd, which averages 9,000 litres, using sexed semen, 100% AI, calving from 21-24-months, and contract rearing.

Andrew Patton returned to the family farm on a full-time basis almost a decade ago, having completed a BSc Hons degree in agricultural technology at Queen’s University.

He farms a 275-cow pedigree Holstein herd under the Ards prefix, just outside Newtownards, at the top of the Ards Peninsula in County Down, with his parents, Wilson, and Karen.

Dairy farming runs deep in the 29-year-old’s veins, with his late grandfather, Harry, credited for introducing the farm’s pedigree arm in 1959.

“We have downsized and then increased in a roundabout way. My dad and uncle previously farmed in partnership.” Andrew of Ards Holsteins told That’s Farming.

“In April 2019, we split the cows with my uncle moving to a new unit, two minutes down the road. We had 350 cows at this point, and since then, we have naturally increased to 275, which is where we want to be.”

Andrew Patton, young farmer, dairy news, Holstein Friesian

Why Holstein and calving season

The trio farm 340-acres (140 owned and 200-acres conacre), with Holstein Friesians being the only breed that dominates the pastures.

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They milk through a Boumatic 28/28 parlour twice a day and the process currently takes about two-and-a-half hours, if there are two operators in the parlour at all times.

“We are very much into breeding, and for me, especially, breeding and selection is my main interest in the farm.” Andrew, who is running for the position of deputy president of YFCU at the annual AGM, this weekend explained.

“There are so many opportunities with the Holsteins that I am not sure we could get involved to the same extent with other breeds. The Holstein cow suits our system well, and we have no plans to change or add any additional breeds.”

Andrew’s ideal cow is “medium-sized with plenty of width, good legs and feet with a snug udder that will last 7-8 lactations”.

“I like a nice, balanced cow that fits in well to our cubicle system. The ideal cow is one that you never notice in the herd.”

9,000 litres 

Currently, the herd is averaging 31 litres at 4.5% fat and 3.5% protein with SCC at 82 (latest data from Lakeland report).

Last year’s rolling averages, taken from CIS milk recording data, are 9,000 litres per cow at 4.11% fat and 3.36% protein.

They calf the herd from the end of July through to the beginning of April, with eight left to calf this season.

“We have always practised this calving pattern to get the most from the cows during the winter months when we house them to take advantage of Lakeland winter milk bonus.”

“And at the other side, to fully utilise the grass early spring. We aim to get the low yielders out to grass as early as possible in the season, with turnout being earlier than ever this year on February 28th, 2021.”

Ards Holsteins, Holstein cows
Image provided by Andrew Patton. Credit: Jane Steel
Calving interval, 100% AI and sexed semen

Their herd’s current calving interval is approximately 380 days. However, they tend to focus a lot more on conception and pregnancy rates and aim to improve on these year-on-year.

Their 2019/2020 breeding season ended with a conception rate of 52% and a pregnancy rate of 34%. By using bulls with positive fertility and a well-balanced diet, they hope to sustain these figures for the years to come.

They utilise a 100% breeding system, with Andrew responsible for the majority of AI’ing.

Over the last number of years, they have stepped up their use of sexed semen and have witnessed a notable increase in the number of heifer calves on the ground as a result.

“It depends on the individual animal how many rounds of sexed semen they get. All maidens receive sexed semen, and we are running a pregnancy rate of 75% with them, with an average of 1.33 straws per pregnancy.”

Contract rearing

Youngstock venture to a contract rearer when they are approximately four-months-old and return to our farm one month before calving. They are diet fed from a young age and do not go out to grass until they are in-calf.

“We have a good system with the guy who owns the farm, and we work together on all the vaccinations etc., and I do all the AI’ing. Once they are pregnant, they will run with a home-bred Holstein stockbull. We also do a lot of work with embryo transfer, using the ‘lower end’ of the maiden heifers for recipients.”

“Embryo transfer and genomic testing are two technologies that we implement at home. We believe that flushing our best cows/heifers to sexed semen – to implant the eggs in the lower end heifers – is a great way to improve the herd’s standard.”

“We do not use any beef semen due to the fact the ones who would be served with beef, generally, have an ET calf.”

dairy cows, dairy farming, milking, milking cows,

Genomic bulls

Ards Holsteins has been using genomic bulls, from the UK PLI listings, over the last number of years, focussing on fertility and health traits – including fat and protein %.

“However, this year, we have not been impressed with the type scores on the bulls available. We have gone back to use bulls we have previously used – now proven – to ensure we do not lose any type from the herd.”

The family sell approximately 70-80 calved heifers each year through the Holstein NI Society Club Sales. “It is a big chunk of our annual income, so it is important for us to get plenty of heifer calves.”

Their heifers calf from 21-24 months and are bred on size rather than age. According to Andrew, due to the fact they are diet fed from a young age, they are well grown and usually adapt very well at home when calving down younger with plenty of condition and size.

Cows in the high yielders are currently fed a flat rate through the TMR of 13kgs. The family work closely with their nutritionist to ensure rations are balanced to “get the most from our cows in the system that we have”.

Furthermore, they paddock graze the farm on a rotational system for as much of the year as possible. According to the young farmer, they must keep the low yielder batch at a constant level, so they utilise grass efficiently and there is no wastage.

Ards Holsteins, calf rearing, calf feeding, calves, Northern Ireland, dairy farming

Future for Ards Holsteins

Looking ahead, Andrew intends to maintain their current herd size as the numbers they have “currently fit comfortably into the buildings we have”.

Patton explained that if the family excess this, they may be liable to see issues arise in terms of fertility and production.

However, one area they aim to improve is calf rearing as currently, they rear all calves in individual hutches.

“My mum is the chief calf feeder, and it is not very pleasant during the winter months. With increasing heifer calf numbers being born every year, I think we will need to invest in something to cope with this in the not-so-distant future.”

“I hope to maintain the current level we are at and keep building on the milk components and fertility.”

“I think overall; the future is bright for dairy farming. It is something we just have to stick at and take the good times along with the bad.”

“I enjoy what I do, love my cows, and to me, it is as much a hobby as it is a livelihood,” Andrew of Ards Holsteins concluded.

Are you a dairy farmer? To share your story, email – [email protected]

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