Saturday, August 24, 2019

Bolderston and Partners: Show success rewards perseverance

August 8, 2019 by  
Filed under Profiles

A dairy farming family has stuck with cows despite all the odds. Judith Tooth reports.

Four difficult years after finding a home for their cows, dairy farmer David Bolderston and his family are turning the corner and feeling optimistic for the future. With champion and reserve champion wins at this year’s Suffolk Show, and third and fourth places at the Royal Norfolk Show, boosting their confidence, they are ready to move to a new phase of improving performance of their 180-strong herd of pedigree Jersey, Holstein and Ayrshire cows.

David, his wife, Linda, and two of their seven children, Michael and Richard, work together managing the herd, renting land and buildings from Neil Hadingham at Badingham in Suffolk. Back in 2000 came the opportunity, having milked other farmers’ cows for many years, to set up on their own, when Michael was offered a herd, to be paid for over two years. All went well until they were given six months’ notice to leave.

They moved the herd to Blyford, but when the landlord died, the next generation didn’t want cows on the farm, and the Bolderstons were forced to look once more for a dairy unit from which to operate. Without a milking parlour, they had to sell some cows, but kept the youngstock, and when they started calving, they bought in extra calves to suckle them.

“It was very, very difficult, but we coped,” says David. “We bought a milking bale and found a farm near Norwich to run it from, but there were complaints, and after seven months we had to go. We had 80 cows and two weeks to find a home for them.

“We spent a day going round all the farms we could think of that had gone out of dairying, but they had all diversified and couldn’t help us. Finally I visited Robert Rous at Dennington Hall: he was very encouraging, and, although he couldn’t help us himself, he put us in touch with Neil. Neil had suffered a minor stroke and decided he couldn’t keep his herd.

“Twenty-four hours later he agreed to become our landlord, and four days later we moved in with our cows.”

The first year was particularly challenging: the cows had been accustomed to loose housing, and struggled to adapt to a cubicle system. Some were lost following falls on the slippery concrete floors. Food had to be bought in as the farm had been sown to arable crops, but there was not much milk to pay for it. The only way to build up the herd was to keep the older cows, and gradually bring the heifers in.

Now the herd has reached sufficient numbers that the less productive cows can begin to be culled and overall performance improved. Monthly veterinary visits are helping with herd health and calving index, and nutritional advice comes from KW and Trident Feeds, and from Kite Consulting via Arla, to whom the farm supplies its milk.

Forage is produced on farm, with strip grazing of mostly three-year leys and silage produced by Neil and bought each month for the herd. Carrots and fodder beet are also fed in winter, and a blend of protein feeds fed in the 24:24 herringbone parlour.

“We calve all year round, while most of our neighbours run autumn calving systems to concentrate their workload and produce more milk from August to December when the price is better. But it’s better for us to have an income each month: other farmers have arable and other enterprises, whereas we just have cows.

“We are trying to get a few more cows calving in the autumn, though, because if we produce more milk in the spring than the autumn we get penalised.

“It works well having a mixed herd: it’s a good combination with butterfat from the Jerseys and quantity from the Holsteins and Ayrshires. People criticise Holsteins, but with good stockmanship they do well. If you’re not worried about them being pedigree, then a Holstein bull, if it’s really good, on a Jersey cow, is a very good cross… but we like pedigree.”

Replacements are bred in-house, with sexed semen for the Jerseys – as there is no market for Jersey bull calves – or British Blue, and the herd’s own Holstein bull, which does a particularly good job with cows difficult to get in calf.

“You should never trust a bull, but this one is so quiet. We’ll soon have to sell him, as his daughters will be coming into the herd, so we’ll plan to keep two or three potential replacements for him and see how they turn out. And in the meantime we’ll use AI.”

The Suffolk, Royal Norfolk and Aylsham Shows are definite fixtures on the Bolderston family calendar each year. Some of David and Linda’s grandchildren show Jersey calves in the young handlers’ classes, and Michael takes the lead in selecting and showing Jersey in-calf heifers and cows.

“We have had firsts at the Royal Norfolk, but not supreme champion – that would be the ultimate!” says Daivd. “You need to know what the judge likes, but we take what we like. If we win, that’s great, but, if not, we have a good day anyway.

“I like a cow with a tidy udder, good legs and feet, and a quiet temperament. I think knowing a good animal is a gut reaction.

“Am I mad, or passionate about cows? The thing is, I don’t know anything else. I’ve been milking cows for 44 years. I wish the industry was better from a financial point of view – it takes a bit of the shine off it. Linda has made a lot of sacrifices, and Neil has helped us a lot. And taking the grandchildren to shows gives me a lot of pleasure. I’m not one for giving in.”