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Bringing colour to the pastures of Northern Ireland

When the Longwell family switched breeds to the VikingRed, they discovered they could maintain milk volume, increase milk solids and achieve better health and fertility than they ever dared to hope.

Changing a herd’s breed is not for the faint-hearted and for Adam Longwell, who farms with his family in County Tyrone, it’s been a gradual process, carried out with a close assessment of performance every step of the way. With his parents, Derek and Kay, and grandfather, Bertie, still involved on Lisnagir Farm near the village of Mountjoy, he felt the weight of responsibility on his shoulders.

But returning home from Greenmount College just a few years ago, he was keen to embrace new thinking and approach the issue of herd health in particular from a different angle. Milking 180 Holstein Friesians at the time, he recalls: “We were hit badly with TB in 2015 and numbers were down so we decided to look beyond the black and white breed for some herd replacements.

“I read articles, spoke to vets and researched different breeds and the one that kept coming to the fore with a reputation for high health was the VikingRed.

“The more I read, the more I liked what I discovered, learning that the breed had not only been bred for its health for many decades, but was also known for its fertility and high-quality milk. “We decided in the end to take a chance and bought our first load of VikingReds from Denmark.”

“Probably the best thing we ever did”

Using a specialist dealer, he sourced the first load of 35 in-calf heifers in 2015, and they were added to the existing black and whites in the herd. “We could tell as they came off the lorry, they were good cattle – they all looked the same type, an identical size and just the medium sort of cow we wanted,” he says.

Due to calve within six weeks of arrival, in August and September 2015, the Danish heifers were only halfway through calving when the family decided they wanted more. “It took no time for us to see they would suit us – the heifers bagged up really nicely, calved down easily with nice, even calves and were milking as well as any of our black and whites at around 30 litres a day,” he says.

Mr Longwell and his father took the decision to visit Denmark themselves to source the next batch of stock and describe the trip as ‘probably the best thing we ever did’. “We wanted to see how the Danish farmers were feeding and managing them and learn from their experience,” he says. “Seeing VikingRed herds producing 12-13,000 litres gave us great confidence in their production potential, although we are not aspiring to be a high yielding herd.

“The farmers also advised us on how to breed our stock, with most recommending that we kept them pure and retained their pedigree status, which should help us market any surplus females we may have to sell.” Back in Northern Ireland, two further shipments arrived on the farm, taking red and white numbers up to about 50% of the herd.

Exceptional udder health

“Whether they had any better resistance to TB, I really could not say as we continued to have reactors for probably another year,” he says. “But I can tell you that they have exceptional udder health, and I could now count mastitis cases on the fingers of one hand,” he says. “Before, we would always have had one or two cows out of the herd at any time, but in the VikingReds, mastitis is rare.”

The level of udder health is no surprise according to Joanna Cox from VikingGenetics who says the incidence of clinical mastitis in the VikingRed is just 8% (first three lactations) across the three VikingGenetics countries (Denmark, Sweden and Finland).

She says: “There’s been a strong emphasis on breeding for mastitis resistance for many years in these countries and it’s one of three traits – including somatic cell count and udder conformation – included in the udder health index.

“With health and other records from 90% of the national herd feeding into this index, the Predicted Transmitting Abilities [PTAs] for udder health have a high reliability.

“This, and the fact that udder health is an important part of the national breeding index, Nordic Total Merit [NTM], all help with the continued improvement of udder health across the national herd,” she says.

But the benefits for Lisnagir did not end there, and fertility was said to be another stand-out trait. “We’ve now reduced our semen usage to 1.7 straws per pregnancy using mostly sexed semen, which is a major improvement on our figures before,” says Mr Longwell. “The least we ever used before was 2.1 straws, using the same DIY AI as always.

Big difference to profitability

“We’ve found the pure VikingGenetics bull calves command a slight premium over the Holstein, fetching around £140 at 4-6 weeks compared with £80 for the Holstein at a similar age,” he adds. “However, once we think we’ve bred enough heifers we now switch to a Belgian Blue which would sell for around £300 at about six weeks. We’ve noticed the VikingReds calve a bigger calf more easily which is probably because of their stronger frame,” he says.

Feet and legs are also said to be ‘the best we have had’, although always with the need to ‘keep on top of foot trimming’. However, perhaps the biggest surprise came in milk quality which is said to have increased the farm’s milk price by 2.5-3p/litre.

“The extra milk quality has come without any reduction in volume or any increase in feed,” says Mr Longwell. “This has made a big difference to profitability, which has really helped over the past few months while the milk price has been low.”

Today the herd’s production stands at 9,000 litres at 4.5% fat and 3.6% protein, with milk solids said to be ‘rising as more Vikings come into the herd’. By the end of 2020 they’ll represent 90% of the 200 head, rising to 100% by the end of next year.

The production is achieved on a simple system using self-feeding gates and blocks of cut silage plus a 20% protein blend fed through out-of-parlour feeders. Milking is through a 22-point swingover ATL parlour. “Longevity is another feature we’ve noticed and, despite the loss of a few TB reactors, we still have 70 of the original 80 brought to the farm five years ago,” he says. “All will be fifth calvers this August and September and they look like they will go on for another five years.”

A renewed interest in breeding

The change of breed has also sparked a renewed interest in breeding, further encouraged by genomically testing a recent batch of heifers which revealed some breed-leading stock within the herd. “I’m also gaining a better understanding of VikingRed bloodlines,” he says.

“We’ve been very happy with our daughters of VR Dalton which gave enough milk as heifers but took off in their second and third lactations. “Now we’re using high NTM genomic bulls such as sire of sons, VR Viljar and VR Fabu, and hope that one day we might even breed an AI-potential sire,” he says.

“Everyone here is very happy we made the change and now we’re even planning to modernise the farm,” he continues. “You would not believe the number of people who stop and ask me what they are, and when our last load arrived, three of our neighbours told me they wanted some of the same.

“My parents and grandfather really like the cattle and regardless of the figures, they say it’s nice to bring a bit of colour to the countryside,” he says.

Lisnagir Farm facts

  • Gradually began switching to VikingReds five years ago
  • Slashed mastitis rates and improved feet, legs and longevity
  • Better fertility reduced semen use to 1.7 straws per pregnancy (sexed semen)
  • Maintained milk volume at 9,000 litres but increased solids and milk price
  • Feed inputs remained the same as the Holstein
  • Aim to complete the switch to all VikingReds by the end of 2021

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