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Dual-purpose breed ensures dairy survival (Nov/Dec 23)

We visited the only pure Normande herd in the country to discover what makes this breed so special and why it has helped one Cumbria-based dairy business thrive in a harsh climate.


TEXT SARAH ALDERTON



What started as an ‘experiment’ in 1992 has proved to be a shrewd move for one Cumbria-based dairy business. The Findlay family imported a handful of Normande embryos from France and now attributes their herd’s survival and success to the breed. They began dabbling in the breed when buyers of their Friesian-cross beef store cattle began demanding proof of parentage following the boom in Holstein breeding. Finding Friesian sires to breed cows to suit their Penrith-based unit’s grazing system was also becoming increasingly difficult.


At that time, the herd was run by fourth-generation producer John Findlay and his uncle Robert Jackson, so they had a decision to make about the herd and farm’s future. John says he saw an article in a magazine about different breeds and their characteristics, and that’s where the idea of using the Normande on their dairy herd came from.


The Normande is dual-purpose, meaning it can be used for milking and beef, and offers a wealth of other positive traits, including: easy calving, calm temperament, strong feet, and good fertility, as well as high milk constituents. It’s the second most popular breed in France, next to the Holstein. But there are very few UK herds using Normande genetics.


The Findlay’s Moorside herd of pedigree Normande cows comprises 130 head, plus 85 followers, and is run on a grass-based system and managed by John’s son, Mac Findlay. The unit also supports 90 head of beef cattle. Mac says that using this breed is the reason they are still able to milk cows. “We can milk Normandes and produce good beef cattle, which generate 40% of our business’ revenue.”


He adds that Normande are low-input cows with a medium-to-high output, which graze ‘aggressively’.


“This means that they milk well and can also produce a good bull calf. The breed also has a good temperament and cows ‘think for themselves’, which has been vital since we installed two Lely robots and a Grazeway system in December 2020.”


Herd average yield is 7,000 litres, at 4.6% butterfat and 3.6% protein, with close to 50% (2,800 litres) produced from forage. Just a small amount of concentrate is fed to yield to tempt cows into the robots.


Next generation: heifer growth is monitored using weigh bands


Milk quality


During the first 61 days of lactation, cows are on a fixed feeding programme starting at 4kg a day and increasing to 11kg on day 60. Cows are then fed to yield using Lely Horizon, with the highest yielders – those producing more than 29 litres a day – fed 11kg a day. Feed rate is gradually reduced 14 days before drying off.


Milk is sold to First Milk on a contract supplying Nestlé, and this means that high constituents are key. The Normande can produce these from grass. The herd’s average somatic cell count is 165,000 cell/ ml with a Bactoscan of 20. Cows are housed during the winter and fed grass silage and a bespoke mineral package based on their exact requirements. Blood samples are taken three times a year during early- and mid-lactation and the dry period to check mineral levels and correct imbalances. Soil samples are also taken once a year to help address any mineral issues. Cows are outside from April to November and rotationally grazed in 12-hour blocks on a 28-hectare platform, with help from the Lely Grazeway automatic shedding gate, which directs cows to the paddocks. “Many people believe that grazing is difficult or impossible when milking with a robotic system, but it works well for us.


“If we provide just the right amount of grass, which the cows graze aggressively, they will return to the robots to be milked. The number of milkings per cow in the summer averages 2.4 and between 2.8 and three in the winter,” says Mac.


Although the Findlays know that yields are lower than they’d see from milking Holsteins, the Normande’s other attributes make the breed the ‘right fit’ for their unit.


Panda look: markings help to protect eyes from the sun


Normande ‘experiment’


“The Normande is a long-lasting cow with high-quality milk that also produces calves that command a good price, whether pure or crossbred, as well as a cull cow that has a decent value. We believe that our Normande ‘experiment’ turned out to be a huge success,” he adds.


Some cows in the milking herd are in their 14th lactation, although they are trying to keep the herd young with cows averaging three lactations. They also get a good price for their cull cows, typically selling for more than £1,000 through Penrith Auction Mart.


The herd calves all year round and breeding focuses on type and management traits. The Lely system produces an individual cow index and provides a score out of 100 that considers factors such as cow fertility, health, robot efficiency and milking time. This helps Mac to decide which animals to breed replacements from. Heat detection is recorded using Lely collars, with 60% of cows getting in calf to first service. Cows are inseminated with Normande semen sourced from UK-bred sires, with current bulls in the flask including Sublime, Sirius, Rugissant, Ronaldinho and Manchester. These sires are individually matched to cows, depending on what traits Mac wants to improve.


Conventional semen


Normande sires are sometimes used on their best cows for second service. But most are inseminated with Simmental or British Blue semen.


Although sexed semen is now available for Normande sires, Mac is sticking with conventional straws because there is a strong market for bull beef and dairy-cross heifers. All males are reared as stores, outside on grass and minimal concentrate, before being sold at between 18 and 24 months old.


“Around 40% of our income comes from beef-cross calves. The most recent batch sold averaged £1,375 a head. “There is also good demand from local suckler producers for our Simmental-cross Normande bulling heifers due to their exceptional milking ability and temperament,” he adds.


Mac is also breeding bulls both to use within his herd and sell privately. He currently has two working Normande bulls on the farm – one used on the heifers and the other as a sweeper. He also has four additional bulls of varying ages that will be sold for breeding. Mac wants to build up this area of the business as interest from other dairy producers who want to use Normande bloodlines on their herds increases.


“We are seeing more interest from producers who are looking to use Normande as a third cross on their herd because the breed increases hybrid vigour,” he says. Heifers are served for the first time at between 15 and 16 months old, and calve for the first time at 26 months. Mac has started using weigh bands to monitor growth to target bulling at the correct time.


A handful of Dairy Shorthorns were also introduced to the herd when the robotic milking system was installed to help increase milking numbers quickly. There are currently seven milking in the herd, which are served using Dairy Shorthorn sexed semen. The breed has similar benefits to the Normande in that they are aggressive grazers and look after themselves. Like the Normande breed, Mac says they are ‘trouble free’ cows.


Although the milk price has dropped by more than 15ppl during the past year, Mac is confident about the future due to the Normande’s ability to turn grass into milk. This allows the herd to be managed using a relatively low input system and to achieve a medium output. The additional revenue the Findlays generate from selling stores and breeding heifers to beef producers, as well as the exceptional cull-cow value, also allows them to ride the peaks and troughs of the dairy market more comfortably. “I’m not sure we could say the same if we had any other breed,” says Mac. “We have a lot to thank our first successful dabble in Normande genetics for.”


Normande facts


In France, the Normande is associated with the production of popular cheeses, such as Camembert. Not only is it a good dairy animal and an efficient feed convertor, its meat is exceptional, with plenty of marbling. Normande’s meat sells at a premium in French supermarkets under the label of Normande Beef. After the Holstein, it is one of the most popular dairy breeds in France, with more than three million Normande cows in the country. The Normande breed is increasing in popularity among UK producers for crossbreeding. Its thick coat means it can withstand harsh winter conditions and the panda markings around it eyes help to protect them from the sun during the summer.

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