A lot of hard work and a passion for pedigrees has led to Mark, Anne, Izzy and Archie Lee into making a big move North to purchase their own farm at Raskelf, in Yorkshire, in pursuit of their dreams.
Both from farming backgrounds, Mark at home for three years, but challenging family dynamics led him to seek out new opportunities. Having nothing to his name, he spent a lot of time working, doing anything from relief milking to brick laying to make money. Once he built up some money he started buying cows which he housed around the UK. His interest in better cows led him to Indianhead, Wisconsin, where he lived and worked on and off for five years.
In 2004, Mark took an opportunity to work for Chris Norton and Tom Brooksbank managing farm-to-farm sales. “Things were going well with my job at Norton & Brooksbank. One day at the end of a sale in Bristol there were 20 heifers left to sell and about six buyers around the ring. I decided it was as good a chance as any to get started as an auctioneer – and I’ve sold ever since,” said Mark.
Even though Mark enjoyed his job, his dream to start farming was still strong. In 2006, an opportunity to take on the tenancy of an unused dairy with 300 acres came available in Mark’s home area of Northampton.
Behind every successful man is a strong woman and by this stage Mark had met Anne. Anne was working as a farm insurance inspector as well as farming at home with her father, John, in Derbyshire. Whenever possible she would head to Northampton and help Mark, who was auctioneering alongside getting the farm up and running, until she made the move permanent after they married in 2010.
Their first milk contract was with a local bottling plant and as production grew a contract was secured with Dairycrest (Muller) on a cost of production tracker. “Being on the cost of production tracker contract certainly helped us to survive the slump in milk price,” explained Mark.
In 2013 realisation that their tenanted farm buildings were at the end of their days and the landlord wasn’t interested in investing, sent them looking for options. Land in Yorkshire was cheaper, offering more land for their money, there was no restriction on crops grown and with less cattle around the risk of TB was also less. In July they purchased a farm less than 20 miles north of Harrogate and York. The purchase was possible by pooling the resources Mark and Anne had built up with that of Anne’s father who had decided to retire and sell his small farm. Park Farm included 160 acres that had latterly been used as a crop farm with unfarmed buildings.
A Do It Yourself (DIY) project saw the previous buildings flattened. Mark worked with a local contractor, James Young, to build a cow shed, youngstock shed and silage clamps.
Cow comfort was at the forefront of the shed design with 22ft wide passages between three head to head cubicle rows and a rubber matted floor at the feed passage. Deep sawdust beds allowed all the benefits of deep sand without the challenges sand provides.
Aiming to make the operation at Park Farm easy for Anne to manage on her own while Mark was away auctioneering, and with hopes of more flexibility for the children, robots were explored and two were installed, with a view of increasing to three down the line.
However, the robots were short lived. “We were led to believe the robots would save more time and really this couldn’t have been further from the truth. While the cows initially settled in, we did not, and the constant alarms with problems for weeks on end became tiring.”
“We didn’t see an increase in milk from the robots, the fresh cows were peaking higher, but the stale cows were dropping off faster, the production curve was more extreme. The fact that the robots were expensive to run with the water, electricity, concentrates, chemicals, servicing and breakdowns, we realised with no increase in production, it was unsustainable,” added Mark.
This aspect, along with the couple realising they didn’t like feeling detached from the cows, led them to purchase a second-hand parlour and begin adapting the robot system in December of 2017 with milking started in January of 2018. Anne commented, “the cows are much happier and more relaxed in the parlour system and it makes me happier to know when I switch off the parlour at night I know all the cows are ok and have been milked.”
Mark likes to have cows that are full and look well, he achieves this with a home-grown forage ration of grass silage, maize silage, Lucerne hay and rye-grass hay, with no more than 10kg per head of cereal and soya-based blend added in.
“For me the hay in the ration is vital to help the mechanics of the cow. The cows are run as one group and fed one ration, 365 days of the year. I feed as much as they will eat on a base of 17% protein and 12 Metabolizable Energy ( ME) . I know that the cows would milk more if I fed more, but I don’t want to compromise health by creating stress on the cow.”
Dry cows and in-calf heifers are grazed during the summer and the milking herd have access to an exercise paddock at night for as long as weather permits.
Mark appreciates that he has been fortunate enough to have travelled, visiting lots of farms all over the world. “Working on other farms is a necessity to working on your own farm, it broadens your outlook on how things can be done, you see things you like and things you don’t like. I was once told not to take too much notice of what other people are doing and focus on what works for you. That is true about so much in life, what works for one person, on one farm definitely doesn’t work for everyone.”
Auctioneering for one of the UK’s biggest farm to farm traders is a big part of Mark’s life, when he isn’t on the road his phone never stops, organising auction or farm to farm sales. He also imports cattle weekly from Europe in partnership with close friend Nici Nosbisch who runs European Livestock Services.
Mark and Anne’s genetics story is also impressive, having built up from nothing, the Crystalclear herd has grown from milking 24 cows to its current 150 cows in a little over 10 years. The herd has been built with strong pedigrees from American cow families with 94% of the herd classified Very Good or Excellent.
When it comes to breeding at Crystalclear balanced type is the focus. “Life is too short to milk ugly cows,” comments Anne. Mark continues, “I want a herd of cows that are trouble free and that go Excellent in their third lactation. To me scoring Excellent demonstrates the right type and longevity in a cow. I like pedigrees with no holes and that is my aim, to keep developing good cow families.”
High type is the focus of sire selection, but Mark is anxious to use bulls that combine type with production. New bloodlines have been brought in using bulls like Saloon and Doorman. “The current market has a large selection of bulls that offer both type and production therefore I don’t see any reason to sacrifice one for the other,” said Mark.
Mark appreciates the extra, early information genomics gives on young bulls and is using outcross pedigrees that combine genomic index pedigrees with pedigrees proven with type, however, he has never had any interest in the genomic race.
“I feel people have chased early genomics for financial gain but with no consideration to the long-term impact on the breed. I’ve always been sceptical of breeding by numbers and have been scared by the PLI index in the UK and its inability to be respected by international AI companies. Having travelled around many farms it is obvious the herds that are bred for PLI, an index that has no weight on type.”
Sexed semen is used to continue genetic progress with 50% of the milking herd and 75% of the heifers in calf to sexed semen, with the remainder of the herd being served to beef.
Sires that have worked well in the past have been Goldwyn and Shottle, with Mark admitting, “Shottle has been the best bull we’ve ever used, all his daughters classified Excellent.”
Most recently young cows by Doorman and Solomon have been the most admired, Mark and Anne are also milking one of the earliest Control daughters in Europe, Crystalclear Control Dewdrop VG-88, and are excited about her.
Appreciating the importance of deep pedigrees and strong cow families, the herd is being developed through the purchase of young animals that have the potential to develop in to excellent cows. And a passion for Red and White Holsteins has seen the herd grow to 25% Red and White.
“We have a relationship with David and Anne Kulp at Kulp-Dale, Pennsylvania. Each year we purchase a few animals, flush them several times and re-sell them. Our share of the embryos is imported and then implanted at a recipient centre, because most of our heifers are the result of an embryo. This relationship has been involved in the purchase of daughters of Camomile, Crimson, Planet Silk, Tequila, Loveable, Gold Prize, Brittany and Cleavage.”
An admirer of Juniper Outside Wish EX-95 2E from Cowtown, Mark managed to purchase a Sanchez out of Juniper Goldwyn Wishful EX. “The Sanchez was flushed a lot as a maiden heifer and then scored Very Good before reselling, this family is one of the most prominent at Crystalclear, making high production, functional cows,” commented Mark.
The herd boasts numerous other high-profile cow families with family members from Luck-E Advent Atlanta EX-92, Budjon Redmarker Desire EX-96 3E, Ralma Goldwyn Carmel EX-92, Paradise, Roxy via Convincer Rhonda, Elsa, Frosty, Cosmopolitan, Rhapsody, Redrose, Ashlyn, Barbie and Atlee.
Another herd favourite is Ridgefield Journalist Angela EX-95 6E. The oldest cow in the herd at 17, Angela was in the herd on the first day Mark started farming.
Plans to complete the new unit, build a new heifer barn and a facility for baby calves are all in the foreseeable future. Also, recruiting an employee to help Anne while Mark is away from home and free up some time to spend with the children is the next priority.
The focus continues to be on improving the quality of cows in the herd. Now that the herd is well established cattle sales will increase and heifers will be consigned to high end pedigree sales like the German Masters and Black and White Sale. Despite having no interest in showing, Mark thinks there are animals that have the potential to grace the show ring and they have hopes that not too far in the future something exciting will come from the Crystalclear herd.
“We’ve spent a lot of money on fancy cows and need to start seeing a return. I think there is a lot of positivity in the pedigree cattle business just now, there are a lot more enthusiastic young people in the industry wanting to invest in good pedigrees and fancy animals,” said Mark.
This couple live to farm and it shows through their passion for genetics, farming and cows. Mark enjoys growing and nurturing crops, harvesting at the right time and then feeding it to produce milk. While, Anne gets the same satisfaction from rearing calves through to calving them in to the milking herd. The future is bright at Crystalclear as their children have definitely inherited the love for farming.
Written by Katie Davidson