The British Friesian

We started with just 35 cows, some sheep and a few acres of wheat at Holt Farm, but Roger and Mary quickly realised the land here in the valley (damp, fertile, rich) was ambrosia for cows – so the sheep went and more cows came in.

From the beginning we’ve only had British Friesians. In the 1970s and 80s lots of farmers went all American with Holstein herds which promised more milk. But, we take the common sense approach: British Friesians are more fertile, live a lot longer, and are better suited for our grass-based system.

Also (and this is really important to us), our bull calves are actually really valuable as beef cattle.

> OUR PEDIGREE HERD

Over the years we’ve bought neighbouring farms so we have the space to bring more cows into the herd. We’re now up to about 400 cows split between two farms, Holt Farm down in the valley, and Yoxter Farm 700 feet up on the top of the Mendips.

From the beginning, when we bought cows from some good local herds, we’ve worked very hard to make our own pedigree herd – this is Mary’s life’s work, and we’re really very proud of it.

We haven’t needed to buy any cows for over twenty years – we simply breed from those cows who have proven themselves within the herd. All our cows have names and very detailed family trees, so for breeding we can choose the ones with the best qualities for milking.

> EVERY CALF IS SPECIAL

As we mentioned, we don’t like to think of any young bulls being seen as worthless. That’s not a good start in life for anyone.

With our herd though, every calf is valuable:

  • British Friesian heifer calves will be the milkers of the future
  • British Friesian bull calves will be reared for beef, or as breeding bulls if they’re really special
  • Beef-cross bull calves will be reared for beef
  • Beef-cross heifer calves go on to make perfect mothers for rearing beef calves.

We look after our calves at special ‘youngstock’ parts of the farms, day in, day out.

> AN ORGANIC DIET ALL OF THEIR OWN

Organic cows need organic feed, the vast majority of which is produced from our arable acres and grassland. Their needs change with age and the seasons.

Once weaned, they’ll be out grazing clover and grass in the fields, and we also feed them a mix of silage (pickled grass – it’s delicious), crimped wheat and other cereals. We grow pretty well all of it here, and we give individual cows their own special mix depending on what they need each day.

> A COW’S LIFE

When a calf is born, we make sure it is with its mother for the first few days, having the colostrum (first milk – which contains nutrients and antibodies) from its mother. It’s then fed milk and a blend of quality food to develop into a strong and healthy calf.

The maiden heifers will calve when they are about 30 months old and then give milk for about 300 days. They have a rest for 60 days before calving again.

The cows are milked twice a day, at 4.30am and 4pm, giving the herdsman the chance for some quality time with each cow. A cow has to be relaxed and happy, otherwise it will not let the milk down

In the winter, cows are housed in warm dry barns. The milking cows lie in individual cubicles, on mattresses, and the expectant mothers lie on straw, in comfort for their calving. They are sociable creatures and we give them plenty of space so they can roam around as they please.

They are fed on a specially designed ration according to their yield, consisting of delicious silage (pickled grass), a cereal mix, and hay. As soon as grass starts growing in the spring, cows and youngsters go outside to graze.

The cows are eventually dispatched before suffering any ailments that come with old age. The age at when this happens is entirely down to the health of the animal – some of our cows are a healthy 13 years old. Pedigree British Friesians are a dual use breed and are used for beef after they have left the dairy herd – some of which we use in our staff canteen.

> WELFARE

We’ll look at their body condition closely and keep track of how much milk they’re giving so we can spot any potential problems early on. We keep track of every cow’s diet, and we’ll send food samples to a lab to analyse them for energy and protein so that the cows get all the nutrition they need.

When it comes to medication, we do vaccinate them against certain diseases based on our own experience and our vet’s advice, but we will never routinely give them drugs like antibiotics. If a cow is on medication, we’ll remove her from the milking herd until she’s better and there is no trace of the medication left in her milk.

British Friesians are a very hardy and disease-resistant breed, and coupled with the low-stress, spacious environment we provide for our herds, we don’t give the family vet much trouble at all.

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