Reprinted courtesy of Farmers Guardian – photos by John Eveson
Producing the right cow for a system and situation is the goal for Ian Collins. Chloe Palmer visits him ahead of his trip to show cattle at the Dairy Show to find out how he has achieved his goal alongside a showing record which is second to none.
Four decades ago, while many dairy farms were turning to the Holstein for increased yield, Mary Collins and her husband chose to establish their pedigree herd of Dairy Shorthorns at Church Farm, Whitley, near Dewsbury, West Yorkshire. Now it seems the breed is making a comeback.
Mrs Collins says: “Everyone thought we were mad back then, but now we are getting quite a bit of interest in our bulls from farmers with Holstein herds,”
Mrs Collins’ son, Ian, suddenly found himself running the farm 10 years ago when his father died, although he was closely involved with its management for 10 years before this.
He says: “My father always let me have an input. He encouraged me to choose the bulls from when I was a teenager.”
Mr Collins has evidently inherited all the passion for the breed from his parents and is very clear about what he looks for in his cows.
He says: “We are perched on the edge of the Pennines and have a lot of fields on the side of a steep hillside. We need a mobile cow which can walk and graze, so our cows need to have excellent conformation and we are not looking for an extreme type.”
Functionality has not been at the expense of appearance, however. The Churchroyd herd of pedigree Shorthorns has enjoyed an unprecedented run of success during this year’s showing season.
Mr Collins says: “We won every trophy at the National at the Cheshire Show. We won the supreme and reserve titles at the Great Yorkshire Show and achieved the new breed record for a bull sold at the society sales. It has been a very good year for us.”
Mr Collins leaves much of the preparation and showing to his mother and sister, Wendy, but he says his son, Harry, and daughter, Molly are ‘very keen’ and show every sign of picking up the reins from their father and grandmother.
“We have all grown up with showing, we enjoy it and there is a great social side to it too,” says Mr Collins.
“I always try not to over-do any of our animals in the ring and I get the greatest pleasure from winning with different cows. I want to be known for having a good herd, not just one or two good animals.”
Their exceptional record in the show ring is the end result of almost four decades of careful selection and blending to reach the desired type.
“I am always looking for a cow which has width throughout and great legs and feet,” says Mr Collins. “All my cows must have an exceptional udder and I am ruthless with animals which do not make the grade because it is the only way to improve the herd.”
Not content with having a string of show champions, Mr Collins believes there is always scope to better his herd.
“There is no one who is more critical of my cows than me. There are always cows and cow families which need improvement and I am always looking to move the poorer performing end of the herd nearer to the top.”
The Churchroyd herd has attracted some controversy among the more traditional Shorthorn breeders because Mr Collins is not afraid to blend genetics from other breeds.
“Traditionally, the fore-udder of the Shorthorn needed to be corrected, so I used Ayrshire blood to improve it.
“I am not scared of experimenting because just using one bull as a quick fix might not be the answer. Sometimes a cow may appear to be too extreme, but it is not always the first cross I am looking for.”
Mr Collins is also quick to dispel the myth that the durability of the Shorthorn comes at the expense of milk. “I do not see any reason why a dairy farmer should tolerate a lack of yield in return for longevity. My cows are averaging 8,000 litres and many of them will have eight or 10 calves.
“I have also have a third-calver which has done 13,000 litres in 305 days and she won the supreme championship at the Great Yorkshire Show this year.”
Mr Collins does not look for a high turnover within the herd to progress the genetic potential more quickly.
“I want to move forwards all the time, but I will not ignore the animals which are lasting and still producing excellent yields.
“I value this trait in a cow because she has to produce at least two calves before she has paid for herself.”
Mr Collins is quick to point out he does not pursue yield when managing his herd because he believes the additional litres would come at a price.
He says:”We achieve our current average yield with no problems, but I think if we try and push the cows harder, we might encounter problems and cost.”
Mr Collins is now producing high quality bulls which are occasionally for sale and the process starts with the selection of the bull mothers.
“I earmark the bull mothers long before they are served by referring to their classifications to assess their potential because I will always breed a bull from a good cow family rather than just one good cow.
“Any bull calf which does not have the back pedigree will end up in the bull beef unit, irrespective of how good looking it is.
“I sell them at two or three weeks old, so I am not tempted to keep something which does not have the right breeding.”
Mr Collins is not afraid to make use of embryo transfer in certain circumstances, but he does not flush good cows as a matter of course.
“Most of our good cows last and we usually have as many as 10 calves from them, so this reduces the need for embryo transfer,” he adds.
Mr Collins has refined his rearing system for heifer calves over the last 12 months to ensure a higher proportion will calve at two years.