By Debbie James

The new president of Holstein UK has spoken of the challenges of managing a pedigree dairy herd under bovine TB restrictions for five years.

Bryan Thomas’ herd is fully housed, a policy introduced in part to manage an ongoing issue with TB.

It is five years since the initial breakdown that has since plagued the business at Gelliddu at Cwmffrwd near Carmarthen, which Bryan farms with his wife, Eirlys, and their son and daughter-in-law, Gareth and Heather.

Managing the herd in line with movement restrictions is a major headache and impacts on all decision making.

Sales of surplus pedigree stock have been suspended and this has meant an unplanned increase in cow numbers.

“We are losing cattle we don’t want to lose, TB doesn’t discriminate between the best and the worst,’’ says Bryan. “When the lorry comes to collect the animals that are to be slaughtered I can’t be there, it is too upsetting.’’

He is clearly angry that farmers have been tasked with the responsibility for eradicating TB.

“We are never going to cure it in cattle until radical steps are taken to deal with infected wildlife, it is time that common sense prevailed.

“From our own perspective I think we will be milking way over 300 cows before we are out of TB and that is a problem we have to face.

“TB is having a detrimental impact on management because cows are being retained in the herd for longer than they might otherwise be, TB has skewed our longevity figures.’’

As Bryan walks through the housing he picks out some of the cow families that have become synonymous with Gelliddu – Alicia, Hazel, Jane, April, Echo, Fantee, Penny and Trolley.

One of his favourites is the Jane family which the Thomases graded up. That line, first established 60 years ago, is very good at producing heifer calves, he says.

The all-year-round calving herd is now producing an annual milk yield average of over 10,000 litres at 3.95 per cent butterfat and 3.25 per cent protein, with milk sold to Freshways. The calving index is 391 days.

Cows with high cell counts are culled and this keeps the somatic cell count low – it is currently running at 95,000 cells/ml.

The family farms 400 acres at two locations, at Gelliddu and on another owned holding 10 miles away at Llansteffan; that land has red sandstone soils and is very productive while Gelliddu has a mixture of clay and sandstone.

Cows are bedded on sand – Bryan was one of the first dairy farmers in the UK to use it as a bedding material.

Its only shortcoming is that it fills up the slurry channels. For that reason there is a second slurry lagoon to collect the sand sediment and this is cleaned out every three years.

The housed system means that nearly all grass grown is made into silage. “We have to make a lot of fodder,’’ says Bryan.

Maize is also an important component in the ration – acreage grown has increased by a third this year, to 120 acres.

Bryan says it is an expensive crop to grow but a very stable feed. “You can make silage and it can be good or poor but with maize you get consistency, when you analyse it the whole crop is the same.’’

Bryan is approaching his year as president of Holstein UK with the energy and enthusiasm that have characterised his farming career.

He believes there is a good future for the next generation of dairy farmers but gone are the days when a good living could be made from the land with little effort. “It is now tougher to pay the bills so for new entrants farming is no longer a way of life, it is a business like any other.’’

Bryan has words of wisdom for those seeking to make a career in dairy farming in uncertain times. “Calm seas don’t make good sailors, the farmers who will survive these times will need to be good at it.’’