Classification - a Journey Worth Taking

When we first started classifying, I was quite apprehensive.  Our herd seemed very ordinary and the cattle very different from the show cattle in the Holstein magazine, which to my eyes could have come from another planet. There was also some concern that classifying might not be relevant for our grass fed herd.

We were pleasantly pleased to get some GPs and a few VGs from our first classification, and it helped me get my eye in – our cattle weren’t so bad after all. The herd was pedigree back in the thirties, but lapsed during the war when my husband’s uncle, who was acknowledged to have an exceptional interest in breeding high performance cattle, was killed in Sicily. Years later we decided to go the pedigree route if we could have our Brinkworth prefix back, and this was duly approved, which led us to start the classifying journey.          

My husband’s grandfather William moved to Hill End Farm in 1910 and had one of the first Friesian herds in the country. This herd has been completely closed on the female side for over a century, except for 20 heifers and a bull which were bought in from Dunfermline in 1956 when TB controls came in. Many herds improve their genetic progress by buying, cows or embryos. Being a closed herd, the process is slower, but consistent.

I was lucky to have had such good genetics to work with, and it’s meant that we have little lameness. Could that be that the old horn genetics are stronger than the modern Holsteins? Early on, I looked for AI bulls with good fore udder attachment, feet and legs, plus milk quality, and durability as well as production. This has helped to keep a robust herd that performs well under any conditions. We look for high milk from forage, but I noticed recently that some of the heifers we had sold into a high production herd were outperforming their contemporaries, which interested me greatly. Examples I came across on the Holstein UK website were Brinkworth Rhys’s daughter Brinkworth Sylla (3rd lac. 13,186, 287, 4.67%, 2.95%, 112), Brinkworth Rana (2nd lac. 11,276, 284, 5.39%, 3.42%, 128) and Brinkworth Roslyn (4th lac. 10,654, 305, 5.9%, 3.4%, 116).

One of the farms I was working on as a farm secretary belonged to a renowned Holstein breeder, and it made me resolve to avoid big cattle with long legs, as we only had wooden cubicles which needed medium sized cows. At the time, I was going against the flow, but it seemed to make sense as we definitely couldn’t afford new cubicles. With the coming of the new PIN system which favoured milk production above type and milk quality, Friesians went out of favour. The AI companies stopped testing Friesian bulls. Farmers were attracted by the plus milk figures on the Holstein proofs, and avoided the Friesians with their lower milk production.

Not wanting to change over completely, we bred our own Friesian bull, Brinkworth Thor, out of a tenth lactation cow that gave just under 10,000 litres in her ninth lactation and still looked like a heifer. Sadly Friesians were not classified at this time, but I am sure she would have been classified Excellent. The bull’s sire Brynhyfryd Lawman met with an accident, so these were rare genetics. We were very pleased with the resulting progeny, one EX, many VGs and plus production. Most of the offspring lasted into their sixth lactations and beyond. Thor’s sister Brinkworth Truth was still here at fifteen years of age, twelve lactations and was able to be classified EX92.

After this success, we bred a 50% Holstein Friesian bull, Brinkworth Hurlstone, a black milky bull. He was followed by Brinkworth Cornelius who we loved and then Brinkworth Turlock VG86 who was rescued as he was such a good looking veal calf and it would have been a sin to eat him! He was a great success, super cattle (12 EX, 12 VG) which lasted and were well above average. Until recently we had two pairs of full sisters by Turlock in their 9th and 10th lactations, out of Brinkworth Dorinda EX92-3E who left here in her 13th lactation - Brinkworth Dovetail EX92-5E 10th lac. 9,858, 305, 4.76%, 3.19% and Brinkworth Diamond Belle EX91-2E 7th lac. 9,196, 305, 3.88%, 3.19%, 119. The other pair were out of Brinkworth Highlight VG85 – Brinkworth Husky EX90-3E (8th lac. 9,459, 302, 4.08%, 3.19%, 130) and Brinkworth High Flier EX90 (7th lac. 7,176, 301, 4.73%, 3.54%, 109). Something to be proud of!

Some years ago, I bred a bull that we called Brinkworth Rhys. (Being Welsh, I slip a Welsh name in when I can get away with it.) His sire was the Genus bull McCormick who had high milk quality and fertility. We mated him with our five star brood cow, Brinkworth Rowan Tree EX91, who also had high milk quality and always passed it on to her daughters. Rhys was also our first EX90 bull.

His progeny were black and deep with good udders, fantastic milk quality and fertility, which brings me to the classification we have just had. I now look forward to our annual classification, the herd has moved on from that first visit and has at best been 77% VG and EX. Since we moved to CIS last year, I took the opportunity this November to classify every possible animal.

 Of the 116 animals classified, 41 were EX and 37 VG. Our 19 Rhys animals were 68% EX and 100% EX & VG, and I think this must be a record from one bull? The good classifications reflect the fact that these are milky animals with very high milk quality that have pleased the eye and lasted – now in fifth and sixth lactations. An example is Brinkworth Pretty EX93-3E (4th lac. 9,064, 305, 4.37%, 3.32%, 118), her dam being Brinkworth Penny EX93-5E now in her tenth lactation (8th lac. 10,399, 305, 4.15%, 3.21%, 127).

 Another lovely story about Rhys occurred recently when I rang up the farmer who bought him from us. He said his progeny had been “brilliant” and he turned up the next day with photos of the daughters and bought two more bulls. Similarly, our highest milk production group are the eight Bacardi’s, which comprise 6 EX, 2 VG. Brinkworth Tiara EX91 gave 11,837, 305, 451, 384, 3.81%, 3.24%, 141 in her third lactation. Incidentally, I would love to use Bacardi again as he nicked so well, but haven’t been able to source any semen.

I am pleased that we now getting some three generations of Excellent cows, and it’s interesting how they reflect longevity, proving that a well-made cow is most likely to last. Brinkworth Darling 3 EX90 is in her sixth lactation and has just given birth to a heifer calf; her fifth lactation was 12,780, 305, 410, 395, 3.21%, 3.09%, 135. Her dam Brinkworth Dovetail EX92-5E, 3 Stars milked for ten lactations and her dam Brinkworth Dorinda EX92-3E did twelve lactations.

With these old cows, like Brinkworth Penny, it’s important to let them leave the farm in a dignified manner, which means planning their last lactation in advance. I don’t worry about heifer lactations at all, as long as the heifers go on to be cows that will milk on. After possibly the second and definitely the third lactations, they don’t owe us any money and their milk is increasingly the most profitable in the herd.

With the youngest animals, the most promising ones have come out with Good Pluses as heifers this time. These figures tell me that classification doesn’t just tell farmers the best looking animals – it also points out the most productive and long lasting ones. I had been worried that classifying was just my hobby, and I might be inhibiting production, but now I am much more content that it’s definitely the right way to go.

Our herd is neither completely Holstein nor Friesian since I have constantly bred backwards and forwards between the two camps. I like to breed a few purebred Friesians, and keep an element of Friesian in our Holsteins. Purebred Holsteins don’t carry any excess weight, and look too skinny for my untutored eye! Since the breeding criteria were changed to include health and conformation, I am much more confident with my breeding decisions. Like nearly all dairy farmers now, I am using genomics, but would use a proven bull through choice, and would like to see more proven bulls coming from the genomic route. We have been using Secretariat in this regard, who is a very good all-rounder with high type, his one fault for me is that I would like better percentages for milk quality.

We are a herd that likes to have high milk from forage. Our annual milk yield on our 116 cows is 7,638 litres with 3,762 from forage on a simple silage and brewer’s grains system, with annual butterfat 4.31%, protein 3.30% and cell count 116. It can be a problem at times to get enough feed into higher yielding cows, as we haven’t gone down the complete feeder route.

When it comes to selling surplus pedigree heifers I fall between two stools, which is why I was so interested in the figures I found on the website looking at heifers we had sold. Most of our heifers so far have been sold in the South West where farmers value milk from forage, rather than pedigree. I am hoping having animals with five generations of VG and EX will make a difference to heifer sales and prices too, and our animals will interest pedigree breeders as well.

I hope this article might inspire younger readers to start this journey. It can be very rewarding. 

Ro Collingborn, Brinkworth Herd


*This article was originally published in the February 2021 edition of The Journal.