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From incidental Jersey to award-winning herd

A small group of VikingJersey cows bought 20 years ago to boost the milk quality of a traditional Holstein herd has slowly but surely taken over a farm in Devon, UK.

Since his early days as a dairy producer, North Devon farmer David Brown had always regarded Jerseys as show cows unsuitable for commercial production. “I thought of it as a show cow; the breed had been traded on that for years, and some people still see it that way,” he says.

Following a breakdown with foot and mouth disease (FMD) in 2001, David initially restocked his herd with traditional Holstein cows – the way his forefathers had done when they set up the dairy at East Hele in Buckland Brewer in 1945. However, he soon found the Holsteins struggled to hit the milk constituent targets demanded for his cheese contract with nearby Parkham Farms.

“We had a couple of years without dairy cows after FMD, but when we got back into milking, we restocked with black and whites,” says David. “But because they struggled to meet the butterfat targets, we brought in 50 VikingJersey in-calf heifers from Denmark as a quick fix in 2005,” he adds.

VikingJersey UK David Harvey Brown East Hele

Jerseys take over

The VikingJersey numbers gradually increased, eventually outnumbering the Holsteins and, finally, taking over the herd altogether.

By 2010, the Dalhem-pedigree herd, run by David and Linda and their children Maria and Harvey, was 100% Jersey cows. Run on a simple silage and concentrate system, it was broadly managed in a spring calving block but sufficiently spread in its calving (February to June but the bulk between March and May) to satisfy the profile required by the buyer.

The VikingJerseys’ takeover had been almost by stealth. Still, it happened because of her ease of management – particularly her fertility, superb feet and legs, a near complete absence of lameness, and excellent general health and hardiness to support longevity.

“They were just an easier animal than the black and white to work with,” says David. “They fitted the spring calving, grazing-based system well, so they gradually took over the herd.”

“Today we have lots of fifth and sixth calvers, and plenty in their seventh, eighth and ninth lactations,” adds Harvey, who previously studied agriculture at Canada’s Guelph University and worked for the Home-Grown Cereals Authority.

VikingJersey UK David Harvey Brown East Hele

Fruitful Danish genetics

Noticing particular bulls which seem to have bred long-living daughters, the family cite Q Impuls, DJ Zuma, VJ Husky, DJ Holmer and Q Zik as sires of some of the herd’s oldest cows.

“Some of these are old bulls, like Zik and Impuls, that we’ve used again and again,” says Harvey. “Their daughters are tidy, not extreme, and just last a long time,” he adds.

The younger cows are by bulls such as VJ Link, VJ Zolt, VJ Tudvad, VJ Quintana and VJ Zlager, while heifers are coming through by VJ Gutz and VJ Gislev.

“This year, we are using VJ Giga, VJ Jojo, VJ Luxplus and VJ Kasino,” adds Harvey, highlighting the continued emphasis on the VikingJersey from Denmark, Sweden, and Finland, which have been strongly selected in favour of traits such as hoof and udder health for several decades.

“We’re now using around 80% VikingJersey,” says David. “We’ve noticed that the VikingGenetics countries have really upped their game in the past 30 years, especially when it comes to health and lifespan, and find the Danish daughters – both the Jerseys and the VikingRed we had in the past – wear really well and last for more lactations,” he adds.

This focus on Danish genetics has proven fruitful, as the herd currently stands at 264 milking cows with a Cattle Information Service (CIS)-recorded 12-month rolling average of 6,140 litres at 6.14% fat and 4.11% protein.

VikingJersey UK David Harvey Brown East Hele

A simple system

The Brown’s system is designed to be simple, comprising ring feeders of silage and the remaining feed intake from concentrates on a feed-to-yield system of up to 10kg/day of 16% protein cake in the parlour. They’re milked through an old 12/24 herringbone, which the Holsteins had become too large for, and that, with minor adaptations, perfectly suits the Jerseys.

“The Jersey today is nearly the size of cow we had when we started,” says David.

Total concentrate intake is around two tonnes per cow per year (0.36kg/litre), while milk from forage is at 2,874 litres – roughly 49% of current production. This feeds through to a margin over purchased feeds of £1,723/cow, or 29.82p/litre.

Combining the 20% replacement rate, 370-day calving interval, and all dairy inseminations (around 40% of the herd) to sexed semen provide surplus heifers to sell to a strong private market.

The remaining 60% is served with beef genetics, specifically Danish Blue, Charolais, or Devon Red Ruby bulls. These are run with the Jersey heifers and used as sweepers across the herd and are sold on to other herds at two years old once they are too big for the Jerseys.

VikingJersey UK David Harvey Brown East Hele

Healthy, profitable cows

The Browns select VikingJersey semen with a particular eye on the Profitable Lifetime Index (£PLI), aiming to balance fertility, health, and production.

“We don’t really drill down into specific traits as we find the Jersey breed doesn’t have any issues,” says Harvey, who also remarks that genomic testing of all heifers helps identify the best animals for breeding replacements.

Since the transition to Jersey cows, vet and med costs have declined and currently stand at £51/cow/year, with much of the spend on prevention rather than treatments. This includes vaccination, routine hoof trimming, and a calcium bolus for cows in their third and later lactations.

“Hoof trimming is carried out twice a year, before calving and in July,” says David. “Last time, we put five blocks on 250 heads – in other words, just five from 1,000 feet!”

Antibiotic use has also declined as cows are dried off with teat sealants, with only those whose somatic cell count exceeds 150,000 cells/ml receiving antibiotics. The Brown’s herd averages 12 cases of mastitis per 100 cows per year, further contributing to this trend.

VikingJersey UK David Harvey Brown East Hele

Super commercial efficiency

As he reflects on the virtues of his cows, David considers how he has changed his mind about the Jerseys.

The Jerseys’ get-up-and-go, ease of management and superb commercial efficiency are tremendous benefits for David. “There’s no doubt that at that time, I did wonder what we’d done, but I also knew I’d had enough of handling Holsteins,” he says.

“Now, I am so glad we used the pure bloodlines of the VikingJersey and retained the herd’s pedigree value,” he says. “And they’re so amiable and easy for me to manage and handle,” he ends with a smile.

VikingJersey UK David Harvey Brown East Hele

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