TOOLAMBA, Vic, dairy farmers Andrew and Fleur Ferguson stumbled onto Ayrshire cows at a bargain price when they were building their herd.
They turned out to be one of the best investments they've ever made.
The Fergusons have been farming for more than 35 years, shifting from Avenel to Toolamba in Victoria's Goulburn Valley in 1987 for the irrigation.
They now milk about 250 cows on 350 hectares and also run small sheep and beef operations, supported by their son Tim and daughter Erin.
Holsteins constitute the bulk of the herd, which also feature Viking Reds, but Ayrshires are making their mark and growing in influence.
The Fergusons didn't set out to add Ayrshires as a permanent part of the herd, but they're happy they did.
"We bought eight about seven years ago with no intentions of going on with them, we just needed numbers," Andrew said.
"We had just built a new dairy and wanted to expand. We'd bought a few Holsteins but they were getting fairly dear. We heard about the Eastern View Ayrshire herd being sold at Colac and were told they were a good herd of cows. We picked up eight at a considerably lower price than we would have paid for Holsteins of the same quality."
Some of those young cows continue to perform well in the herd at 10 or 11 years old, while many of their daughters and grand-daughters are coming through.
Initially Andrew and Fleur didn't breed them back to an Ayrshire, instead joining them to Holsteins.
"We did that for a couple of years but they turned out to be really good cows and they stayed in the herd," Andrew said. "About four years ago we decided to breed them to an Ayrshire for purebreds.
Fleur added: "We're now milking those daughters plus we've added a few more from sales in South Australia which are really good."
The purebreds have allowed the Fergusons to start showing Ayrshires, including winning a class at International Dairy Week and success at local calf shows before they were curtailed by COVID.
With about 30 in the herd, Ayrshires are now an integral part of the farm. "They blend in really well with the Viking Reds," Andrew said. "They are similar style of cows and share a few of the same bloodlines. A lot of Viking Red bulls have a high percentage of Ayrshire in them, up to 90 per cent."
They say both the Ayrshire crosses and the purebreds perform well, but they now plan to keep them pure with no more crossing.
"They're almost the perfect-sized dairy cow - halfway between a Jersey and a Holstein," Andrew said.
"They're robust, have good feet and legs and good fertility. They have good calving ease and we don't have much trouble getting them in calf."
Fleur has been impressed by the calving ease. "They're big robust calves that can handle the conditions just as well as Holsteins," she said. "They're good-natured, easy-to-rear calves."
The Ayrshires are also holding their own in production, while excelling in health.
"They seem to be keeping up with our herd production average or even a bit better," Andrew said. "They're in the top half of the herd."
A two-year-old Ayrshire was last year the highest producing heifer from all the breeds.
"We didn't really expect that," Andrew said. "We were told they were slower maturing and they would get better as they got older, but this heifer was firing early on. She's classified VG as a two-year-old and she's now calved as a three-year-old and looking really good."
Best of all is their health. "They are a lot healthier than the Holsteins; they don't have as many problems," Andrew said. "They have better feet and fertility and they have pretty good cell counts and we don't have much mastitis trouble with them."
The positives add up to a bright future for the Ayrshires. "We will be increasing their numbers in the herd," Andrew said. "We're using a lot of sexed semen and we will buy more when they come on the market, although they don't come up very often.
"We had no intentions of going to Ayrshires. We just bought them for numbers but they were good enough to stay and they've stood the test and continued to get better."
Articles for this feature supplied by Australian Ayrshires, website https://australianayrshire.com.au/.
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