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Farming practice - livestock

The Cholderton Estate is a mixed enterprise, with some 270 dairy cows in two units, plus 50 dairy replacement heifers, and 180 beef cattle and followers. Sheep form an important part of the livestock, with 250 purebred Hampshire Downs and 220 Finns; there are 120 ewe lambs. At present there are also six Tamworth pigs, but this number might increase as meat sales improve.

Management of the Organic Dairy Herds

The first priority with the dairy herds is spring and summer milk production. The majority of the cows will calve during February and March. At this time of the year there is no grass or other fodder crop available, so the cows are fed on silage and hay. The herds are loose housed and bedded down on copious quantities of straw. Every effort is made to keep the cows as clean as possible.

Cows due to calve are watched, and assistance is given in the event of a cow having a protracted birth. If necessary, use is made of a calving jack; calves are born much more easily and with less stress to the cow. Newly born calves have their navels sprayed with iodine and are then encouraged to suckle, but are given colostrum via a stomach tube if this should prove necessary. It is vital that calves receive colostrum within four hours of birth, otherwise they are unable to absorb directly the antibodies that are present in this first milk.

Calves are left on their mothers for as long as possible and thereafter are reared entirely on organic whole milk from the herd. The calves are reared at each dairy, so that mothers are able to keep in touch with their offspring throughout the rearing process.

The newly calved cows will initially be fed on silage, but will be turned out onto the white clover leys as soon as these become available. The early part of the grazing season will be dependent on white clover; then, as summer progresses, sainfoin and lucerne will prevail. Red clover leys are particularly useful in the late summer and autumn.

The cows are generally set stopped. Fortunately the cows appear to have become very accustomed to eating leguminous-rich pastures, and bloat does not appear to be a problem. Fatal attacks of bloat used to be quite common, and particularly prevalent in rye grass leys receiving large quantities of artificial nitrate. There have not been any cases at Cholderton since organic conversion.

Newly calved cows receive a ration based on home-grown cereals and GM-free maize gluten, fed at 4lbs per gallon (0.4kg per litre). Minerals are added to compensate for deficiencies. Cows are served, normally by AI, 56 days after calving. An Aberdeen Angus bull is run with the herd after AI stops, to catch any later calvers.

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For some years the policy on breeding has been to concentrate on the attributes of health, hardiness and good milk production. For this reason, semen from genuine Friesian and Shorthorn bulls is used. Many of the cows have had ten calves or more. This is a remarkable statistic, given that the national average is merely three lactations per cow. Factors such as health and welfare are more important than just milk production. Many dairy farmers have failed to take into account the true cost of replacement stock.

Milk quality is consistently high. This is the result of careful milking techniques, including the use of the Californian Milk Test, and the general cleanliness of the cows and milking equipment.

Silage is cut in June and July in a single cut from crops of either red clover or oats and vetches. These crops are capable of producing outstanding yields in an average season. No additives are used, the silage is merely rolled and sheeted down. The clamps are normally opened in November, and the silage has proved to be very palatable.

Milk production declines over the autumn and winter, leading to a dry period six to eight weeks before calving. The cows are normally fed on crops of kale or turnips over this period.

All manure from the barns is removed periodically and stored over the winter. Spreading of the composted material begins in March, over as many fields as practicable.

Target levels of nutrients for each field have been calculated, allowing for the direct excretions of the animals and the additional spreading of compost. The combined levels of inputs will not exceed 9.6lbs per acre (200kg per hectare) of nitrate per annum. This ensures that the level of nutrients does not exceed that which can be used by the growing crop. This, coupled with careful spreading, should prevent the leeching of pollutants into ground or surface water.

Management of the Suckler Herd

The suckler cows are home bred Aberdeen Angus x Friesians. These cows are good milkers, excellent mothers, calve easily and are robust and healthy. As heifers they are put to an Aberdeen Angus bull. Later calvings are to Limousin and Charollais bulls. The sucklers are calved inside during February and March and are turned out to grass with their calves as soon as practicable. Bull calves are castrated painlessly at birth by the use of a rubber ring and are disbudded as soon as possible.

The calves grow rapidly over the summer and are grazed on organic pastures that were devoid of cattle in the previous year. Every effort is made to secure worm-free grazing for the stock. The cows and calves are housed before Christmas, when weaning takes place. Many will be sold in the New Year, the steers going to fattening units and most of the heifers going as breeding stock for other farms.

Manures are treated in the same way as for the dairy cows.

Management of the Early Lambing Hampshire Down flock

The Hampshire Down sheep at Cholderton receive particular care and attention. This is partly because they are an important part of the history and culture of the Estate, but also because the owners are exceptionally sensitive towards the needs of their sheep.

The Estate ewes are fed whole oats at 0.5lb (0.22kg) a head for six to seven weeks before they are due to start lambing. Generally at this time of year – October – there is plenty of grass, but the ewes also have access to tubs of organic molasses-based blocks and mineralised salt licks. As lambing approaches, the ration is gradually increased until at lambing the ewes are being fed between 1.5 and 2lb (0.7–0.9kg) of oats with minerals. When the ewes have lambed and are lactating heavily, the ration is further increased to 2.5lb (1kg) per head, including GM-free maize gluten to boost the protein intake.

Failure to feed in-lamb ewes properly can result in Twin Lamb Disease. The symptoms are indifference to food and partial blindness, followed by collapse and death. Ewes that are inadequately fed after lambing can develop Ketosis, with similar symptoms. Both these ailments can be treated if caught early enough by giving the affected ewes Colate Multi-Lamb Rapid.

Problems can arise even if the ewes are apparently adequately fed. This will be because a ewe may be old, or suffering from bad feet or another ailment that prevents her from competing successfully for food. Such sheep should be taken away and fed on their own.

Ewes can develop mastitis. This is treated by stripping out the affected quarter, and administering an injection of penicillin into the muscle of the hind leg. This causes less stress to the ewe, and she will need to be injected again only if symptoms persist after two days.

Lambing The field in which lambing is going to take place should be large and well sheltered. A group of fields with surrounding woodland or good hedges giving shelter from the prevailing weather could also be very suitable. It is important that each ewe is allowed the privacy she requires at lambing because this reduces the incidence of mis-mothering.

At Cholderton the sheep are checked every two hours during the day, with checks continuing up to 2300hrs at night. The first morning check is around 0600hrs. This dedicated and intensive routine ensures that most lambings are attended.

It is very important that the ewes are given access to adequate grass or good-quality hay after lambing. In the early part of the year, grass will be short and therefore the ewes will need 2.5lb (1kg) of food per head. The lambs will eat some of this, but as the grass begins to grow the amount of concentrates can be reduced. The feeding of the ewes should be adjusted to take into account grass availability, and the general condition of the sheep.

The Hampshire Down is a traditional breed, developed to produce early maturing lambs for the Easter market. This is a job for which the breed is admirably suited, and today it is this premium market that all breeders should aim to exploit.

Grazing policy Ewes and lambs should have access to plenty of grass in the spring and should not be stocked too tightly; lambs can be easily set back if their food supply is curtailed.

Cholderton lambs are not vaccinated until all those going to market have been sorted out and sold. This reduces handling and prevents any being spoilt by having an abscess after being immunized. Generally lambs will have received adequate immunity from their mothers up to this age. Those that are not sold will become flock replacements, and as such will need careful attention.

Ewes and lambs will flourish on leguminous crops such as sainfoin, vetches or a mixture of oats and peas. This is a very effective way of improving field fertility. At Cholderton the 'forward creep' grazing system has traditionally been used. This allows the lambs to have first use of the sainfoin by controlling access with a 'creep' – a gate that allows the lambs, but not the ewes, to pass. The lambs go through the creep to graze on the sainfoin and on the barley meal put out for them. The ewes follow behind, devouring the sainfoin down to the ground and leaving a manured, stripped field behind them.

Health Young lambs sometimes become lame. This is due to ‘strip’ and is easily treated by spraying iodine between the digits. Feet are of paramount importance and should be kept well trimmed and free from rot. Foot rot is best treated by clipping out, spraying and, as a preventative, using a foot bath containing zinc sulphate. See ours health suplement

The ewes are normally shorn in May. At shearing all the ewes’ feet are trimmed, and at the same time any ewes that require culling are removed. They are also sprayed with Vetrazine to prevent fly strike. It is important to keep the back ends of sheep clean. This does help to keep the fly away, but even perfectly clean sheep are sometimes attacked.

Purchasing foundation stock Most people start their flocks by purchasing a few ewes or ewe lambs. Some basic points should be checked. Examine the mouth to ensure the animals are not under or over shot – in other words that the front teeth meet on the plate on the top of the mouth and do not come in front or behind the plate when the mouth is closed. The udder should not have lumps in it; lumps could mean that the animal has had mastitis and there is a problem with her milking ability. Ensure the legs are straight. The nose should be straight, not bowed, and the wool on the body white without black fibres. Further breed points can be ascertained in ‘The Standard of Excellence’ in the Hampshire Down Flock Book.

Once the females have been purchased, a ram may be obtained from a different flock, to achieve a mix of blood lines. It may be worth getting a sperm test done by the vet before purchase. Look for length and a good deep back end on a ram; do not buy sheep carrying excessive fat on short legs. Rams should be fit, not overly fat, and able to work.

Breeding stock should not be purchased from flocks infected with any form of contagious abortion.

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General flock welfare It is extremely important that the flock is treated with an appropriate vaccine. Ewes that have not previously received a vaccine require two doses, a month apart, with the second dose 4–6 weeks before lambing. Ewes that have been vaccinated before need only to be given a booster vaccination. The timing is important. If it is left too late, the ewes may be upset and suffer from metabolic problems. If the vaccine is administered too early, the level of protection given to the lamb will be diminished.