Home-made creep feed has enhanced the fortunes of a Kent producer, reducing costs, increasing growth rates and improving profitability for his marshland-fed beef. Ann Hardy reports...
Convention has it creep feed is bought in bags or in bulk and produced by a feed compounder. But Kent beef producer Jamie Loveridge has turned his back on this approach, following a series of disappointing loads arriving on his family farm.
Having no arable land of his own, he instead opted to make his own calf creep based almost entirely on ingredients bought from local farmers.
As a result, he has not only spared himself the disappointment of receiving inconsistent quality feed as it turns up on-farm, he has also cut his costs of production, achieved his enterprise’s best ever physical and financial performance, and been able to fund the expansion of his herd.
Today, Mr Loveridge and his father Keith keep about 300 suckler cows around Rye Street Farm, Rochester, run extensively across various dispersed blocks of mainly rented land totaling about 566 hectares (1,400 acres).
With much located on Kent’s northernmost Hoo Peninsula and the neighbouring Isle of Sheppey, it largely comprises marshland adjoining the Thames Estuary.
Most is rented from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, some is designated a Site of Specific Scientific Interest and it is all in Higher Level Stewardship, with nitrogen use of the marshes prohibited.
Mr Loveridge says: “The land is definitely managed for the ground nesting birds and the purpose of the cattle is to create the right habitat for them.
“We are limited on how heavily we can stock, in order to protect the ground-nesting birds, and the cows have to eat the grass to the right height. The grass is definitely managed in a less than idyllic way from a farming point of view as creating the right habitat for the birds is the priority.”
In fact, each year, Mr Loveridge even has to apply for a derogation to keep creep feeders on the land, but says it is worth the effort since feeding his stock well at a young age is integral to their lifelong performance.
“If we are going to finish them in good time, they have to be intensively fed from the start. The younger they are, the more efficient they are at converting feed into meat, so this is the most important phase.”
Creep feeding has helped him move away from a system of extensive rearing, producing store cattle at about 18 months, to a system of finishing bulls and steers at 12-16 months. Heifers are kept for longer, either to finish at 18-22 months or to be retained as replacements for bulling at 14 months.
The annual cycle now adhered to is rigid, with calving over a strict 12-week period, which is on schedule to be reduced next year to just nine weeks.
Calving in yards from February 20, the native breed and dairy cross continental cows and calves, all sired by a Limousin bull, will stay in their maternity group until they are turned out in spring.
Unable to feed the calves concentrates while they are in the yards, simply through lack of feeder space, it is as they are turned on to the marshes that creep feed is first introduced.
Having had sole responsibility for the beef for the past three years, Mr Loveridge initially bought creep feed in pencils, a bigger, 6mm form than the alternative 3mm pellets, which would theoretically be consumed in good quantities.
Using a top-of-the-range pencil from a reputable company, he was not unhappy with the product or performance, but wanted to experiment with blends and straights.
“I do not like the idea of a product being ground to within an inch of its life and I also like to know the quality of the raw ingredients,” he says.
Starting by moving to a blend, his first experience of this was not at all good.
“My first 12-tonne delivery looked like sweepings from the floor. This really opened my eyes to the quality of feed we were buying, especially since this was the blend which would have gone into the pencil we had previously been using.
“We did try to feed this as creep but ended up with a trough full of dust, so intakes were very poor.”
Continuing to persevere with blends with mixed results, he says the final straw came when he it became clear the composition of every load would not be the same from one artic to the next.
“The first load from this company had been exactly what I wanted and was not dusty at all,” he says.
“But after the second load was delivered, you could not go in the barn for dust for at least half an hour. There was no comparison in the two loads.”
Increasingly disillusioned with the option he had chosen, he decided to take a step further back and started buying straights.
Investing in a roller mill, a Murska 350, which would process both cereals and pulses, he started looking locally for ingredients.
Mr Loveridge says: “I wanted to feed whole oats as I had a local source and knew calves did well on them. But I was replacing a 16 per cent protein pencil with a cereal of 11-13 per cent protein, so knew the oats would have to be balanced, including for minerals.”
He sought advice from Michael Carpenter, northern area sales manager for feed specialist Kelvin Cave, on additional ingredients which could be processed at home. He agreed oats would be good for calves because of their high digestible fibre.
Mr Carpenter says: “Whole oats can be safely fed to young animals until about eight or nine months, and will help with their rumen development.”
Formulating a creep ration for Mr Loveridge’s calves, he included 345kg/tonne oats, 185kg/t rolled barley and 135kg/t rolled beans, all of which were grown locally.
The only long-distance bulk ingredients were wheat distillers pellets from Vivergo (205kg/t), which will be replaced when the bioethanol plant closes, and 115kg/t of sugar beet shreds, plus minerals and live yeast.
Mr Loveridge says: “It immediately produced a great physical quality blend which looked good enough to eat. I knew every ingredient in it was high quality and there was nothing in there just to pack it out.”
The creep feed was costed at £179 per tonne, which compared with £204 per tonne for the previously bought blend.
But more important than this was the increase in intakes, which Mr Loveridge says was immediate and quickly reached 3kg/head per day in the ad-lib fed bulls, steers and heifer replacements. However, the slower-reared heifers were restricted to grass and milk.
With an analysis of 18 per cent protein, 31 per cent starch and a metabolisable energy of 12.75MJ/kg dry matter (DM), it also lifted performance.
Remaining on the creep until winter housing, this involved a gradual transition for the bulls to another hi-spec home-mixed ration based on rolled wheat, barley and beans. Meanwhile, heifers and steers were fed a total mixed ration including the same concentrate ingredients.
“We had never finished animals on-farm until February 2018 but I was certainly happy with their performance,” says Mr Loveridge.
“The bulls were finished and fit to go in less than 12 months and I actually found myself waiting to send them to the abattoir, where 12 months is the minimum age they will accept.”
Crediting the creep and finisher ration with the performance, it is clear a keen enthusiasm, attention to detail and health, through worming, fluking, fly-tagging and vaccination programmes, are also playing their part.
“The physical quality of what they are eating is better than anything I have seen or bought before,” adds Mr Loveridge.
“It says it all when you know you have accurately aged cattle which you are waiting to send away and are killing out at a deadweight of 380kg, which is 40kg less than the buyer’s upper limit.”
With all the steers and bulls sent away from the farm by June, he says the saving of avoiding a second summer of turnout is right for the farm and his landlords, and good for the bottom line.
“My profit per head has increased by finishing cattle at home and, with fewer youngstock out at grass, we are able to keep more cows on the same ground,” he says.