By Chris McCullough

It’s probably the last place you would think of finding a herd of Ayrshire cows, but the breed is indeed proving popular with South African dairy farmers.

Among all the thousands of black and white Holsteins, the distinctive marking of the Ayrshire cows are becoming even more visible in herds right across the country.

At the end of April, this year, the Ayrshire Cattle Breeders Society in South Africa celebrated its 100th anniversary.

South Africa’s Ayrshire journey began in 1890, when James Rawbone, of Somerset West, in the Western Cape, imported the first Ayrshire herd, consisting of two bulls and eight cows.

In 1998, there were 5800 females registered in South Africa but that number has almost tripled today to 15,000 Ayrshire cattle registered by just 90-odd breed society members.

Situated just 35km outside Cape Town, Fair Cape Dairies currently produces 70m litres of milk per year from 2500 Holstein, Ayrshire and Jersey cows.

The farm is run by five brothers from the Loubser family, each of whom head up a different department. Melt Loubser is the chief executive officer and his brother, Johannes, looks after the dairy herd.

Of the total number of cows, there are 350 Ayrshire cows milking with the aim of – along with 250 Jerseys – the quality aspect of the bulk tank. The were initially introduced as ‘a bit of a hobby.’

The cows are milked three times per day, with the Holsteins averaging 40 litres per day; Ayrshires hit 30 litres per day and the Jerseys are sitting at 22 litres per day.

Johannes said: “The Ayrshire cows were introduced to the herd eight years ago. They milk very well and last longer than the Holsteins. As we send milk to produce different dairy products, we require higher levels of protein and butterfat, and the Ayrshire breed can help achieve that in the mix.

“In fact, the milk from Ayrshire cows commands a higher price in Woolworths' retail outlets as it promotes the breed’s milk as a superior quality.

“The Ayrshires are easy to look after and seem to be hardier than the Holsteins. We certainly like them here at Fair Cape Dairies.”

Cows are kept indoors all year long in cool sheds to reduce the heat stress and are walked to the 64-point rotary parlour at milking times.

To maintain the highest welfare levels possible, the sheds are built with the latest technology to ensure each cow has sufficient space and provide an under-cover and an open-air section. Hot air is channelled up and out through gaps in the roof while allowing the cooling breeze to blow through. The temperature inside the sheds is maintained at approximately 10°C cooler than outside.

Some of the cows are kept in open corrals, while others stay in cubicles with Israeli-style deep bedding which has been screened from liquid slurry.

Cows are weighed three times per day in order to detect if there are any major fluctuations which could possible indicate disease or some other problem.

Vets are on site each day and if there is a noticeable weight gain or loss, the animal is flagged up for attention.

One of the major issues at Fair Cape Dairies is that there are far too many cows, as calf mortality is low at around 5% on average.

Johannes said: “The Holsteins are lasting 2.5-3 lactations which is almost double the national average of 1.6.

“We have a relatively young herd and end up culling good cows as we have too many of them. There are also a number of 100 litres per day cows in the herd which may seem good, but it is hard on the cow too and it usually ends up being culled.

“It may seem a nice problem to have, but in reality it is quite the opposite. Culling healthy cows does not seem to be right but it is essential to maintain manageable numbers,” he said.

The herd is milked through a 64-point rotary parlour which was installed a year ago. Workers spend 15 hours per day milking cows in total.

Johannes admitted that if he had to do it again, he would have installed a parlour with a larger capacity.

“We are milking around 360 cows per hour with the existing parlour but I feel that we could be more efficient with a larger rotary, probably a 75 or 80-point system. It’s something that we will look at in the future but not just at the moment.”

The farm has 2500 ha (6250 acres) of workable land and harvests 1000 ha of wheat each year at5 an average yield of 4.5 tonnes per ha over the past five years.

All the liquid slurry is spread on the land after it is screened with solids being used as bedding.