The Gibsons’ upland farm business relies on getting store cattle ready for market in a short space of time. Feeding live yeast has become key to meeting targets.
Upland farmers need no reminding of the challenges facing their livestock production systems. And for Andrew Gibson, farming in Northumberland, between the River South Tyne and Hadrian’s Wall, there is always a race to produce high quality cattle in a limited time.
With a suckler herd which has a main calving block taking place as the season improves in May, the challenge is to have youngstock looking in optimum condition as store cattle prices peak at the same time the following year.
Andrew farms with his parents, Michael and Sandra, and wife, Jane, at Thornton Tower Farm, Newbrough, near Hexham, where the family keeps a 160-head herd of suckler cows, comprising a combination of British Blue cross Holstein and their Limousin cross daughters.
A further 20-head herd of pedigree Limousins supplies breeding bulls for sale and service sires for use in the family’s commercial herd.
Andrew says: “We have a Mayday target. We start calving on May 1 and want to start selling our yearlings at Hexham Market from the beginning of May the following year.
“Trade for store cattle typically peaks at the May sales, and we want to make sure our cattle are ready and looking at their best when we take them there.
“We rely on regular buyers coming back year after year, and they have to be confident our cattle have the potential to grow.”
The business inevitably has to work within the constraints of the system, one of which revolves around the 404-hectare (1,000-acre) upland farm’s 1,100 ewes.
“It means we feed very little outside, partly because we cannot use cattle creep feeders,” says Andrew, who admits as much would go to the lambs as the calves.
It also means growth rates have to be maximised once calves come in for winter, which usually occurs at the beginning of November.
At this point, as youngstock come off grazed grass, a carefully formulated ration is introduced, based initially on the analysis of the farm’s forage. The silage is made with two targets in mind: an early cut of the farm’s youngest leys, which is clamped with red clover silage and kept for youngstock; and another clamp containing silage made later in the season for suckler cows, which has a lower metabolisable energy than the youngstock silage.
ForFarmers nutritionist John Telfer, who formulates the youngstock ration based on the analysis of the early cut grass and clover silages, praises the quality of the farm’s forage.
He says: “This year, the grass silage in the small pit analysed at a metabolisable energy [ME] of more than 10.5MJ/kg DM, but protein was down at 10.5 per cent.
“The clover silage in the same pit, also had an ME of more than 10.5MJ/kg DM, but protein was higher, at about 15 per cent.
“So they were pretty good forages and we were able to complement them with concentrates, fed in a mix of 2:1 crimped barley to ForFarmers Blendmix 24.
“This produced a mix of about 18 per cent protein, since the low protein of the grass silage meant there was a need to get extra protein from the concentrate.”
The ForFarmers blend he recommends also contains the live yeast, Levucell, which plays an important role in successfully switching from grazed grass to concentrates and improves the feed conversion efficiency of growing cattle.
John says: “We are pushing younger cattle hard to reach their goals, aiming for a growth rate of just over 1kg liveweight gain per day.”
This means rumen health and performance have to be optimised, and in this, the Levucell plays an important role.
John says: “Levucell encourages favourable bacteria to populate the rumen and they effectively mop up lactic acid. This will help maintain the rumen at a constant pH, which is particularly important in a diet containing barley, which can create a tendency towards acidosis.”
Andrew says: “We were always aware of the importance of keeping the rumen pH constant and how easily stock can suffer with stomach scorch, so we were happy to try Levucell when we heard it played a part in regulating pH.”
Levucell works in numerous ways, all of which have a positive effect on rumen health and function. It also improves fibre digestion and scavenges oxygen, which helps maintain the anaerobic conditions required for the desirable microflora to do their work. The overall effect is to increase dry matter intakes and improve feed conversion efficiency.
Andrew says he notices the difference in cattle once they move to the new ration.
He says: “Before we switched to the product with Levucell, our calves tended to grow in spurts, at times looking a bit lean and hairy.
“Now we are on Levucell, we notice they have a nice level growth. They have a good shine on them and always look a good weight and condition for their size.
“In the past, we would get the odd animal with bloat, but that never happens now. The growth rates are higher and feed conversion is better.”
In fact, the Gibsons have been so happy with the performance of their cattle, they have introduced a concentrate containing Levucell to lambs.
Andrew says: “Previously, they were on ad-lib barley and standard pellets, but we changed the pellets to ForFarmers Ewbol Lamb Finisher 16, which also contains Levucell.
“They perform noticeably better on it. Lambs are more fickle to fatten than beef and, on the old feed, some of them would gorge themselves with disastrous results. We saw a big decline of that on the new feed.
“We sell them either through the ring at Hexham or straight to Dunbia or Randall Parker Foods and the enterprise is definitely doing better since we changed the feed.
“Ewes also go on to ForFarmers Ewbol Gold 18 about eight to 10 weeks before lambing. We are really pleased with it.
“Ewes are healthy with noticeably fewer ailments, including twin lamb disease, and lambs get off to a good start. We have also noticed a big decline in the number of prolapses; we now get hardly any.”