A former dairy farmer who switched to bull beef production has used his knowledge of ruminant nutrition to formulate a cost-effective total mixed ration (TMR) based on maize silage, to finish animals at under 16 months old. Wendy Short reports.
A cost comparison between the TMR and a diet made up of straw and bought-in concentrates shows the TMR works out significantly cheaper, according to Graham Prudham, who also runs an agricultural contracting business from Whitefield Farm, near Carlisle in Cumbria.
The maize-based TMR is calculated to cost £1.52/kg of daily liveweight gain (DLWG), while the figure for a straw and a bought-in beef blend diet is estimated at £1.85/kg DLWG.
Bull calves from the 30-cow British Limousin cross suckler herd are retained, with additional calves purchased at a local auction mart at about six months old. These are a mixture of breeds, with some 260- to 280-head kept on the farm at any one time.
Most finish at less than 16 months on the ad-lib TMR system and these animals are sold deadweight, with black and whites at 350-390kg and 75-80 per cent achieving R grades.
The continental crosses are slightly heavier at 380-420kg and are generally classified U+. Animals which exceed 16 months are marketed through the local auction.
Mr Prudham, who farms with his father, Ian, says: “Deadweight selling usually produces a small premium and is more convenient, compared with the auction system, but it attracts supermarket buyers, who require cattle at under 16 months.
In theory, I could bring my cattle home from the mart if they fail to make decent prices, but due to practicalities, that never happens.”
The yield figures and quality analysis of the maize silage, which makes up 30-50 per cent of the diet, are used as a base for ration formulation, with any shortfall rectified with additional barley.
Mr Prudham has experimented with growing spring beans to include in the ration, but they were dropped from the rotation, due to problems at harvest.
“Maize silage enhances rumen function and keeps the cattle in general good health,” says Mr Prudham. “Finishing times could probably be reduced through a higher inclusion of barley, but that would increase the risk of disease, particularly acidosis.”
Maize was grown under plastic until six years ago, when the family took on some additional rented land with a favourable aspect; the farm is currently made up of 61 hectares (150 acres) of owned land, with a further 324ha (800 acres) rented. Maize is now grown conventionally and is cut around mid-October.
“The main issue with continuous maize is keeping on top of weeds, especially couch grass, but we do not use a pre-emergence treatment, in order to keep input costs to a minimum,” adds Mr Prudham.
“Our method may not be appropriate for all situations, but we find it pays to let the weeds get up to a reasonable height, to provide shelter for the young maize plants. However, I will admit there is a fine line between the protective effect and the risk of yield losses through weed competition.
“A post-emergence herbicide is applied to the maize and the wheel marks are used to make a foliar feed application containing 35 units of nitrogen per acre. The crop also receives farmyard manure.”
The bull beef enterprise requires minimal labour input and following the purchase of a straw bedding machine, it only takes one man about 1.5 hours a day to bed up and feed out the TMR, he adds. It is also a good way of utilising the buildings.
“The profitability of the bull beef is roughly equal to a more extensive steer and heifer finishing enterprise, particularly when the cost of rented grassland and the labour and fuel involved in managing cattle at grass are factored in. It would not suit every farm, but it works well for us,”
says Mr Prudham.
Whitefield Farm is in a high rainfall area and requires an early-maturing variety which stands well, according to Simon Nelson, of Agrovista.
“A high proportion of maize in North Cumbria is sown under plastic, but the Prudhams can keep costs down by growing the crop conventionally on their south-facing, lighter land,” says Mr Nelson.
“The ultra-early Ramirez has been sown for the past five years in succession and in 2017 yielded 16-17 tonnes/acre at 31 per cent dry matter and 31 per cent starch. It was sown with a small acreage of Cito, which performed well and will be included at a higher acreage for 2018.”