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Farming organically with VikingRed is proving a huge success

Sophie’s VikingRed heifers and her faith in natural methods are putting Hemsworth Farm on the map. 

Sophie Alexander is an organic farmer, managing around 1200 acres (400 ha) of chalkland at Hemsworth Farm in England. She is blazing a trail as a woman in farming exploring new ways of making her farm financially successful and environmentally friendly.

In 2009 the main part of the farm near Hemsworth in Dorset was converted to organic. Five years later the financial success of farming organically persuaded her to convert the remaining 150 ha.

Sophie compared the organic and conventional systems side by side and discovered she was getting consistently higher margins on her organic crops.

“I benchmarked the organic part of the farm and the conventionally run part of the farm for three harvests and it demonstrated that my margins gave me more financial resilience on the organic system. By which time I was much more interested in farming organically. I think it’s the most resilient and realistic way of farming,” says Sophie.

Organic farming is the future

Sophie believes that organic farming is the future as environmental issues become more of a priority.

She says: “It’ll gain in popularity as the realisation of the damage to the environment becomes clear. And we’re demonstrating the health of crops and livestock. I think it will become more and more common that farms convert.

I think there’s also be a closer connection between what’s being called regenerative farming and what’s called organic. But being organic certified is a way of proving the provenance and the rigor of the production system.”

Sophie takes the same future proofing approach to developing her herd that she took to her agriculture.

She integrated livestock into the rotation as a way to increase soil fertility and soil biology, primarily through contract grazing organic dairy heifers on the grass-clover leys.
“Originally I looked after someone else’s dairy heifers, which worked very well. A couple of years ago had the confidence to go for a dairy system of our own,” says Sophie.

Farming organically with VikingRed is proving a huge success

Sophie’s VikingRed heifers and her faith in natural methods are putting Hemsworth Farm on the map. Her partnership with VikingGenetics and the yield of the herd are helping her reap the profits from her innovative choices too.

Strong health profile and excellent conformation

She purchased 300 VikingRed dairy heifers. Sophie introduced a spring calving, parlour-milked system which is working well for her particular farm.

“This is the first year we’ve been milking. These were bulling heifers when they arrived, they calved in this last spring, 2021 so we didn’t expect their yields, protein and fats to have reached their full potential.”

The herd is producing over 5 % butterfats and over 4% proteins. The young herd is producing a yield of 2,900 litres of milk a day.

The farm’s system is designed to milk the cow’s once a day. Sophie says: “Our target was about 2,750 litres per cow per year in their first lactation, but we’re so far we’re producing about 3,000 litres per animal.”

Sophie looked at many different breeds before choosing the VikingRed for her new herd. She says: “We worked in partnership with Roaming Dairy, they went for traditional breeds. But we were starting from scratch, and I wanted cows with very high health. I also preferred larger beef calves that we weren’t going to have a problem with selling and having a purpose for.”

In 2019 Sophie’s search for the right heifer took her to VikingGenetics.
She says: “I became very intrigued by crossbreeding, so we went out to Sweden. Initially, we thought the ProCROSS cows were going to be suitable, but they are bigger than the VikingReds. Because we have an extensive grazing system. I really like conformation of the VikingRed.”

Sophie is impressed with the breed and how they’re performing at her farm.
“We haven’t got a completely even herd yet in terms of size, the average is 450/500 kilos. But I like their temperament and they have a very high health status. They’re easy calvers, they’ve got good feet and legs and udder conformation. They’re also good converters of grass to keep up their body weight and condition.”

Great adaptability of VikingRed

The VikingRed is an ideal animal for Hemsworth Farm and the soil found in this part of Dorset.

“The risk I felt I was taking was traditionally from the type of extensive grazing system that we’ve designed is that people would want a lighter cow. But we’re on light soils over chalk, these have outwintered once here already. I’m very happy and content with the footprint they make. We move them twice a day so poaching, and compaction is not severe.”

The herd has adapted well to the weather, environment, grazing and milking demands on the English farm.

“I appreciated that the heifers came from a high production system in Sweden, so we felt that is was important to bring young stock over not any that were established in a lactation. The assurances from the VikingGenetics’ team was that they would adapt. I’m impressed that they will produce whatever milk is demanded of them. Depending on what they are fed and the frequency of the milking they’ve adjusted really convincingly.”

Sophie is delighted with how the VikingRed herd has done since its arrival from Sweden.

She says: “I’m really pleased with how they have performed to date. It’s a totally new system and its our first year of production, but they have got through the winter in the very good condition.”

One of the challenges the new herd faced was a spring with very difficult weather.

Sophie explains: “It caught us by surprise, but they remained fertile into the next bulling system. They graze well and they have barely been lame. Their hoof health and ability to walk the distances on this farm is great. Sometimes they walk 2 kilometres a day and they manage really well.”

The VikingReds have earned a place in Sophie’s heart with their character too. She says: “They’ve got great temperaments; I really like them and I am really fond of them.”

Achieving the goals

As a female farmer Sophie is still in the minority. But she says the industry is changing and welcome women.

“I don’t think farming has glass ceilings for women at all. I have only received good will. I would say just do it if that what you want to do. I haven’t encountered any resistance or chauvinism. People have given me tremendous encouragement and a lot of advice. I feel there’s a lot of goodwill towards women in farming.”

Sophie says she had benefit starting from scratch with her herd but encourages farmers to take the leap to embrace the new stronger breeds that VikingGenetics can provide.

She says: “It was a greenfield site as there were no home herd before, just visiting cattle. It was a huge advantage to be able to say I’m going to start from scratch and VikingGenetics organized the logistics to bring over 300 bulling heifers. My advice is to introduce them slowly so that you breed them to your existing herd.”

The Partnership with VikingGenetics has helped Sophie achieve her goals at Hemsworth Farm.

“We’ve still got a way to go but we’re going to continue to improve the adaptability of the herd to our system. Like all herds we want to improve the genetics. So, what I like is that there’s all the data going back decades on the breeding lines and suitability of all the cows. The records kept by the Nordic Total Merit are tremendous in trying to breed the best for your system.”

Focus on wellbeing of the herd

Farming organically with VikingRed is proving a huge success for Sophie at Hemsworth Farm.

“I can’t recommend it highly enough; I so enjoy farming organically. The change to the natural wildlife on the farm, watching the soils improve and having the privilege of having this beautiful livestock on the farm is fantastic,” she says.

Sophie has a unique Spring Grazing System in the UK. She thinks the choices she has made weren’t a gamble as they made sense on an English farm.

She says: “I don’t think I have taken a huge risk and the fact that there’s not a once-a-day spring block grazing herds in the UK that just didn’t occur to me. They are a good choice and an informed choice.”

At Hemsworth Farm Sophie was determined to put the wellbeing of the herd first.

She says: “I think the fact that high health was one of my highest priorities made it the right decision. I think biosecurity in the UK has been pretty poor. The opportunity to start a herd from scratch from a country which does not have yonies, TB, BVD, or IBR was a fantastic opportunity.”

As a female farmer who focuses on organic methods with a unique grazing system in England Sophie is blazing a trial in agriculture.

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