Nestled in the quiet country lanes of rural Shropshire, lies Knowlesmere Holsteins; a herd quickly establishing itself as one of the major forces within the UK. Read more about Knowlesmere in this article, that originally appeared in Cowsmopolitan in 2014.
Capturing winning ribbons, securing multiple All-Britain nominations and achieving top prices in the sale ring, this family operated farm has clear visions of what the future holds and is focused on a sustainable and profitable future.
Both Andrew and Jane originate from farming backgrounds, with the Whittaker family name being at the centre of farming communities since the 17th century, in fact the name “Whittaker” is Saxon for “White Acres”- meaning fields of corn.
Andrew’s grand-father was one of the first people to recognise the benefits of milking cows three times a day. Milking by hand, he had the highest yielding herd in the county in 1941, 1942 and 1943. Likewise, Andrew’s father was a diligent commercial dairyman and arable farmer who had meticulously high standards. A switch to beef farming whilst Andrew was a teenager, didn’t deter Andrew from re-entering the dairy sector after finishing education.
Despite their own illustrious pedigrees within the dairy fraternity, Andrew and Jane actively discouraged their children, Izzy (27), Steph (25) and Michael (24) from pursuing careers in agriculture. Even though they encouraged them to get the best possible educations with hopes of them opting for different professions, all three have progressed through the ranks in jobs associated with the dairy industry.
Eldest daughter Izzy graduated with a first class honours degree in business studies. Appointments with Cogent in Sales and Marketing, and as the marketing and media manager and editor of the Holstein UK journal preceded her recent move to Holstein International, where she is employed as an editor and marketing specialist. Together with boyfriend Gary Jones, they live nearby.
With a degree in Business and Management, Steph was recruited by Genus as a Business and Development Manager for the UK and Ireland and now has responsibility for Dairy Brand development in Europe, the Middle East and Africa.
Michael graduated from Oxford Brooks with a degree in Quantity Surveying, but has recently taken up a role with Cattle Information Services (C.I.S), working in the laboratory department.
From a young age, all three have been involved on the farm on a day to day basis, with chores part of their daily routine. Whilst other children their age had posters of film or pop stars on their walls, the girls’ bedrooms were embellished with posters of Maughlin Storm and Startmore Rudolph!
Walking into the kitchen to a warm welcome and the smell of freshly brewed coffee, your attention is drawn to the walls, beset with ribbons, awards and pictures of the family’s achievements, many of which reflect their achievements within Holstein Young Breeders (H.Y.B). Izzy, Steph and Michael freely admit they wouldn’t be where they are today, without their involvement in H.Y.B. Competing within the movement has helped define their careers and has given them the opportunities to travel, develop friendships and much more.
Previously, operating on a tenanted dairy farm in the neighbouring county of Cheshire, Andrew and Jane quickly collected numerous awards including Runner up in the Young Farmer of the Year award, and accolades recognising excellence in crop production and management. Throughout their tenancy, there was a constant threat that the farm could be split by a proposed expansion of the M6 motorway. After years of this hanging over them they had the opportunity to purchase their own farm with the help of Jane’s parents, moving to Shropshire 8 years ago.
Whilst the move allowed them to establish their own roots, it was problematic. “The facilities on the new premises were designed for much smaller cows,” recalls Andrew, “initially we had to sell cows as the infrastructure and milking facilities were unable to sustain the herd.” To begin with they converted the silage clamps to loose housing and renovated existing cubicles to assist lunging room. Constructing new feed clamps meant excavating 30,000 tonnes of sand and rock!
James Doherty (Steph’s partner) manages the herd alongside David Boswell who has been employed by the family for nearly 35 years. Andrew acknowledges the improvements and protocols James has implemented have been a tremendous success, particularly those associated with the milking routine. Cell counts and cases of mastitis have been reduced by implementing a regimented approach to milking: Cows are stripped, wiped and after a 60-90 second delay clusters are applied. This delay is optimum for the release of oxytocin and milk let down.
More attention to the Dietary Cation Anion Balance (DCAB) has seen a reduced incidence of Milk Fever, and administering Kexxtone boluses to the older cows or those carrying a little extra condition have lowered the incidence of Ketosis. Fresh calved cows all receive ad lib warm water and James credits this as a main factor why cows start eating TMR quickly post calving. In addition to regular vet visits and routine fertility work, cows walk through a footbath everyday alternating between Formulin and copper sulphate solutions.
At the time of my visit a new 16:32 Boumatic parlour was being installed, which should hopefully halve milking time and provide valuable management information in conjunction with Heat Time which has been in use for the last 3 years.
Always focused on breeding large capacious cows, recent years has seen more emphasis put on udders, legs and feet. Izzy is quick to point out the impact Goldwyn has had within the herd, adding extra quality and veination to the udders, and injecting a little more refinement. Breeding decisions at Knowlesmere are very much a committee effort! “We all have our opinions on what mating’s work, but it’s good to listen to everybody’s thoughts,” acknowledges Andrew. James and Gary are valued members of the team, and they offer valuable insight as to the strengths and weaknesses of each mating, James works with the cows on a daily basis, and knows what, if any areas are problematic, whilst Gary travels extensively and has valuable insight as to what bulls transmit most consistently.
The herd was graded up and the prefix first registered in 1988. Since then several cow families have come to the fore of the breeding programme including Knowlesmere Starbuck Diamond EX. Having had 5 natural heifers, 4 scored Excellent, emerging as one of the most successful families within the herd. The family transmits great size with tremendous scope and outstanding mammary systems. With a 97-point mammary, Knowlesmere Jordan Diamond EX-94 (2) is a great example of this flagship family, and was Honorable Mention at this years’ UK dairy Expo judged by Mark Rueth.
Another family the Whittakers are excited about originates from to the 2X All- American and 3X All- Canadian, C Bermaska Starbuck Chancel VG-89. A Pronto great grand-daughter purchased as a calf, won honourable mention at the All Britain calf show. A flush to Sanchez resulted in Knowlesmere Cowboy, who is siring some really great calves and Knowlesmere Sanchez Chancel who won Champion Calf at the All Breeds National Show under German judge Markus Mock and has since scored VG-88 as a 2 year old.
When selecting new families, careful consideration is given to the strength of the cow families and recently embryos from the Kingsway Terrason Allie EX-94 (Goldwyn), Eastside Lewisdale Goldwyn Missy EX-95 (Braxton), Kamps-Hollow Altitude EX-95 (Sid), Miss Roy Terror VG-89 (Guthrie), and Morsan Stormatic Brenda VG-87 (Gold Chip) families have been purchased and are starting to develop. “The more you invest, the more you have to sell,” says Jane, referring to Knowlesmere Brax Missy who they sold last year at the Black and White sale for the top price of 10,200gns (CAN$19,500). “You can’t afford to become too attached to them.”
Classification plays an integral role within the herd, “It’s an ethical decision and relevant to every dairy producer for cows to be scored,” explains Steph. “Without classifications there would be no proofs or benchmarks to improve further generations.” “We appreciate the opportunity to get an independent opinion on our cows,” remarks Jane, who became emotional and shook the classifiers hand, the day they received their first Excellent. Knowlesmere Gemma went on to produce 3 X 100 tonne cows and 4 daughters who all scored Excellent, with 118 descendants registered to date.
Over the last 2 years, 97% of cows have scored either Excellent or VG and 92% of all heifers went GP or VG as 2 year olds. Shaped by years of careful sire selection, it’s an impressive achievement when you consider the 200-head herd’s average score is currently just shy of 87 points.
Fanatical about the show ring, in 2013, Knowlesmere bred and owned animals received more All-Britain nominations than any other breeder in the UK.
Concentrating on the larger national shows, partly due to their own careers, Knowlesmere competes at seven or eight shows each year, focusing on the shows that assist them to sell and market cattle.
Their success in the show ring is testimony to the hard work, perseverance and patience they put in 365 days of the year. Gary, who travels around the globe fitting, has been instrumental in implementing set routines to get the most out of the show team. But the whole family is quick to recognise others who have advised them over the years and given them valuable insight including Ray Brown (Bidlea) and David Hastings. “Get involved with the right people and ask advice from those that know what they are talking about,” smiles Andrew.
Travelling around the world and attending top shows and sales has broadened the horizons of the whole family. “We still appreciate seeing daughter groups before we use a bull,” remarks Andrew. “There’s no substitute for seeing first-hand how cow families and sires are performing,” explains Steph. “Travelling also enables us to select which families we want to invest in for the future,” elaborates Izzy, concluding that the Adeen and O’Kalibra families are high on the current list.
Passionate and enthusiastic, the Whittaker family are unassuming and modest about their success with an overwhelming sense of positivity about what the future holds. From humble beginnings, grading up the herd to showing at the highest level, the pursuit of a Master Breeder award and the opportunity to show in Europe, seem the obvious next stepping stones in this herds success.