By Debbie James

Achieving high levels of fertility in cows that produce average annual yields of 13,000 litres is challenging but a Pembrokeshire dairy farming partnership is achieving that with a focus on breeding, herd management, nutrition and heat detection.

The George family run two fully-housed herds at Brynhyfryd Farm and Sealyham Farm, Wolfscastle, farming 2,200 acres of owned and rented land.

Cows are milked three times a day through 40:40 herringbone parlours, with milk sold to Dairy Partners at Newcastle Emlyn.

Improvements in performance have been gained since the herd stopped grazing.

The calving interval has fallen to 375 days, pregnancy rates have risen to 28-30 per cent and yields have swelled to 13,000 litres at Brynhyfryd and 12,000 litres at Sealyham, all while expanding cow numbers.

“A housed system suits our type of cow,’’ says Michael.

Michael, his wife, Jill, and their youngest son, Charles, run the herd at Brynhyfryd, while the herd at Sealyham Farm is run by Rowland, his wife, Sharon, and Michael and Jill’s eldest son, James.

The day to day management of the herds are James and Charles’ responsibility.

New genetics were introduced in the 1980s, firstly using part-bred Holstein sires and then purebreds: 60 animals were imported from Canada.

This resulted in a larger cow type with a “great will to milk off bigger intakes’’.

When Michael and Rowland’s father, Colin, died in 1993, aged just 55, he left a legacy that shaped the national herd: bulls he had bred were being used by AI companies.

He also had notable success in the showring and, after his death, Michael and Rowland wanted to follow his lead: they did so with great success, winning Supreme Champion at the Welsh Dairy Show in 1994 and 1998 and at the Royal Show in 2000 and many other awards.

In 2001, they sold several animals to farmers restocking after foot and mouth but the following year their own business came under pressure from disease – this time bovine TB.

It was 15 years before the herd went clear and the respite in 2017 was short-lived as another breakdown followed.

But the burden of TB has now been removed as the herd tested clear in June 2020.

To prevent interactions with wildlife, only in-calf heifers are turned out to grass.

Intakes now come from producing top quality grass silage from 1300 acres together with 500 acres of maize.

“Our system is driven by increasing milk litres and keeping feed costs down, to achieve this we are driven to make top quality forage,’’ says Michael.

The high input high output system requires a high level of staffing – there are 20 full time employees and five part-timers.

“The success of what we do is down to the staff, the workforce is the most important thing in any business,’’ says Michael.

The Georges have been using genomics to breed for fertility, to improve the genetic ability of the herd to reproduce.

“We went down the genomics route six years ago to improve the commercial aspect of the herd and we now have highly fertile cows that give lots of milk,’’ says Michael.

“Until then we had cows that produced milk but we couldn’t get them in calf. With good management and genomics, even with high yields we can now do this.’’

Heifers are inseminated with sexed semen and a 55 per cent conception rate is achieved: some sexed semen is also used on the first calvers.

But some of the best females in the herd are from the cows imported from Canada in the 1980s – progeny of Maureen, Hester May, Lausine and Idella.

“We are seeing the performance and strength in those females coming through 17 generations later,’’ says Michael.

He says the Holstein was criticised for being high maintenance and short lived but adds: “Everything that needed to be corrected has now been done.

“Wherever you go cows are good and that is testament to improvements in the Holstein breed.

Breeding selections are oriented towards the right type of cow for the system with high production and good health traits - James and Charles have the job of making those choices.

“We like to breed animals with lots of dairy strength, that are wide chested, not too tall, with good udders, legs and feet,’’ says Charles.

Their choices have been validated as in 2018 the Brynhyfryd herd was named by Holstein International as having the highest number of active excellent cows in the world, with 233 EX cows.

The accounts of the business are reviewed monthly, to establish what is working and what isn’t.

“We are not the sort of people who think that everything we do is right but neither that everything we do is wrong, whatever we do our goal is to do it better,’’ says Michael.