The Thompson family talk to Sarah Liddle about their dairy enterprise and appearance on a TV show.

Last year, two North-East farming families allowed television crews to follow them leading up to and during their participation at the Wensleydale Agricultural Show.

The episode of The Farmers Country Showdown recently aired on the BBC and is available on catch up on iPlayer. The TV show portrayed the Thompsons from Butterknowle in County Durham, who competed in the Holstein and Jersey dairy classes, at the Wensleydale Show held on the August Bank Holiday Saturday. The TV show also followed the Wilkinson family from Leyburn, who competed in the beef cattle classes.

For the Thompsons, of Softley Farm, showing is very much a hobby alongside a commercial dairy enterprise and the 800 breeding ewe operation in Teesdale where John farms in partnership with his father and brother, Andrew.

They are assisted by a team of dedicated and enthusiastic full- and part-time helpers including his wife Angela and daughter Katie (who’s the Jersey and showing enthusiast) while their son James works with the NFU in Warwickshire.

The Thompsons have a commercial herd of 220 – Picture: Katie Thompson

The Thompsons have a commercial herd of 220 – Picture: Katie Thompson

John took on the day-to-day management of the dairy herd in his late teens, with aspirations to increase the milking herd to 100 head, milked in a herringbone parlour.

When restocking after foot-and-mouth in 2002, the family decided to restructure from the 110-head milking herd and single suckler herd, to double cow numbers to 220. The new herd was sourced from Holland as John liked the longevity and wearability of the cattle.

Furthermore, he found their health status at that time to be first rate and the country was TB free. The Dutch cattle also offered breeding stock with high levels of milk components and quality. The herd that has descended from these imported cattle more than 20 years ago numbers 280 cows, with over 300 followers and is yielding 10,500kg per lactation on average at 4.37 per cent fat and 3.49 per cent protein with a only ten bactoscan and 53 average cell count on the last milk test.

An important element of the business is the sale of both young stock and in-milk surplus animals and John has strived to make sure the health of the herd and rearing is first class.

The Thompsons were featured in a TV show – Picture: Katie Thompson

The Thompsons were featured in a TV show – Picture: Katie Thompson

With the milking herd numbers at capacity at Softley Farm, the business relies on a combination of owned and rented land – heifers are reared on two other farms nearby, with the bulling heifers heat detection aided by the Heatime system and heifers also cubicle trained at this facility.

The herd is tag and tissue tested for BVD as routine, vaccinated for BVD and IBR and Johne's monitored with the whole milking herd milk sampled four times per year.

Emphasis is placed on giving newborn calves a great start to life. Calf rearing is very much a family affair, with either Angela, Katie or John feeding the calves with the help of a milk cart – credited for a providing a very consistent milk to calves. Calves are reared in pens or hutches (with hutches seen as the better environment) with calf blankets given to all dairy heifers, calves are fed two to three litres of frozen colostrum (which has been tested prior to freezing with a colostrometer).

Weaning follows at between eight to ten weeks of age, while recently the application of iodine as a pour onto backs of in-calf heifers and dry cows has certainly improved calf vigour, with calves exhibiting more obvious sucking behaviour as a deficiency of iodine has been overcome.

With the milking herd being the farms principal monthly income stream, it is always been important for the farm to breed cows suitable for the system.

As a tenant at Softley Farm, investment in milking facilities has delivered a return as long as commercially-viable cows are bred. Picston Shottle bred many great cows but other influential sires include less well-known bulls such as Leif, Jethro and Emill, while more recently Abundant, Ahead, Bundle, Applejax, Sassafras and Renegade have been used.

The breeding focuses on sires with milk components and strength, with sires that have chest and rump width desirable – the cows can then produce milk (sold to Arla) for many lactations.

As time has gone on, John says that by getting cows to last an extra year, he can in effect save the need for a full crop of replacement calves, which means significantly more revenue can come into the business through rearing British Blue calves from them to sell on.

When it comes to housing, the low yielders graze during the summer only and are loose-housed through winter. There are two high-yielding groups split between sand cubicles and cubicles with mattresses and sawdust. All the fresh calvers going onto sand, while all heifers are housed in a separate group on cubicles.

The implementation of sand bedding has itself hugely cut the vet bills and cell counts. The other change has been to try and avoid problem cows by trying to make sure they are culled before they reach this stage. All this has led to a replacement rate of 20-25 per cent, excluding the large number of cows and stock sold onto other farmers to milk themselves.

In addition, bull calves are sold at two months, with the live ring and auction markets valued for their transparency. Cull cows and sheep are regularly sold from the farm through the local Darlington Farmers Auction Mart.

John says that his stock may not all win red rosettes in the ring but luckily the type of cow he has, and is breeding, is now a desirable cow for many other producers – robust, efficient, low maintenance and capable of component rich milk over many lactations – something Katie is learning as she increases her involvement in the management of the dairy herd.