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Co-operative approach to maize for beef brings big benefits


An innovative arrangement based around maize silage is bringing cost and efficiency benefits to two faming businesses in Devon.

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To secure sufficient high quality forage for his beef rearing business, which finishes around 3,000 head per year, David Merrin has been working closely with several arable farmers in the South Hams region of Devon. But his arrangement with David Lethbridge goes one stage further, with Mr Lethbridge now finishing steers as well.


Under the arrangement, Mr Lethbridge from near Totnes, grows maize for silage and finishes beef animals on a ‘bed and breakfast’ contract.


Mr Merrin’s business finishes dairy cross steers. Cattle are sold on contract to ABP Sainsbury’s and the target is 600kg liveweight or 300kg deadweight at 20-22 months old.


He says: “At a 300kg carcase, dairy steers will grade provided they are well fed and ours mainly grade at O-, 3 or 4L.”


Calves are bought at two to four weeks old from a number of suppliers. Animals typically spend 200-250 days at grass before moving onto a high starch diet comprising maize silage, grass silage, wholecrop, rolled barley and maize distillers.

Finishing diets

For the final 70 days they are fed a more intensive finishing diet including rolled barley, maize distillers, ground maize, straw and molasses. The diet is 46 per cent starch but Mr Merrin says including ground maize helps reduce the acidosis risk.


“There is no doubt cattle do well on maize, whether ground maize or silage,” Mr Merrin says.


“The starch drives performance and maize silage is a consistent feed, but it needs to be a quality crop. As the land at home is required for grass silage and grazing we have to look to produce maize on local arable farms and find this approach works well, especially as it can help give more land for muck disposal.”


Mr Lethbridge has been growing maize for several years now and finds it an ideal complement to the cropping on his 200-hectare (494-acre) arable unit, where the rotation includes winter wheat, oilseed rape, barley and oats.


He says: “The intensive cropping was starting to cause problems. We were seeing an increase in weed problems and yields were declining, partly because no FYM was being applied, and partly because crops were hungry. The farm is lightish soil so we needed to put something back with an additional break crop. Growing maize on contract fits the bill perfectly.”


He believes maize provides an excellent break, allowing a chance to get on top of weeds and it means fields can benefit from a decent application of organic manure. In 2014 he grew 14.5 hectares with payment based on a set price per tonne with all trailers weighed over a weighbridge.


“I carry the growing costs, with payment based on the actual yield so it pays me to focus on growing the best crop I can, which means I have to get the variety right.”


Choice of variety is crucial as it has to meet the requirements of both parties as Chris Tucker from Pearce Seeds explains.


He says: “We have to achieve a balance. From an arable farmer’s perspective, the crucial factors are maturity date and how a variety fits into their system. They will also be interested in the physical yield when contracts are based on a price per tonne harvested. From the beef producer’s viewpoint, the quality of the forage is also extremely important so we need a high yielding, high quality variety.”


In this case the key was to select an early maturing variety combining yield and quality. The crop needed to be off quickly as it was to be followed by winter wheat and the drilling window would be tight.


“If we chose a variety with maturity class 7 or 8 we would really struggle to get wheat established. Glory, which is maturity class 10 and has good early vigour, ticked all the boxes and performed well. It was drilled into over-wintered stubble in the last week of April following spring barley. A spray programme was developed to target the known problems which were mainly broad-leaved weeds, with chickweed and nightshade being particularly prevalent. The aim was to keep the crop clean and allow the maize to get away quickly.”


The crop was harvested in the last week of September allowing the quick turnaround into winter wheat. It was harvested leaving a 20cm (7.8in) stubble to optimise yield and quality.


In the last year the arrangement between the two businesses has been extended, with Mr Lethbridge constructing a finishing unit for 500 head on the farm and agreeing a 10-year ‘bed and breakfast’ contract with payment on a £/head/week basis. Animals are moved to the badger proof, TB lockdown unit for the final 70-day feeding period.


The mixed diet is brought to the unit every other day and Mr Lethbridge is responsible for feeding and bedding. He says: “Like growing maize as a break crop, the finishing unit fits really well with our system. It gives us a way to use straw produced on the farm and means we are producing FYM on site rather than having to cart it in. This means improving soil quality is now quicker and easier.”

Cattle spend 70 days at the purpose-built finishing unit and are fed a more intensive diet

Cattle spend 70 days at the purpose-built finishing unit and are fed a more intensive diet

Farm Facts

  • Dairy cross steers sold deadweight at 300kg (carcase weight) at 20-22 months
  • Calves bought at two to four weeks old
  • Cattle grazed for 200-250 days
  • Then fed inside on high starch diet of maize silage, grass silage, wholecrop, rolled barley and maize distillers
  • Final 70 days – fed an intensive finishing diet including rolled barley, maize distillers, ground maize, straw and molasses
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