A feeding system and a programme to improve grass quality have significantly reduced finishing times and kept ration costs to a minimum on a Northumberland farm. Wendy Short reports.
More than 250 continental cross steers are finished each year at Earsdon Farm, a 364-hectare (900-acre) livestock and arable unit, run by Fred Ryle and his son, Henry.
The cattle, which are purchased either privately or through the local auction marts, are offered a grower, and then a finishing, ration, both of which contain the same home-grown ingredients: grass silage, straw, barley and field beans, plus minerals and vitamins. They leave the site near Morpeth at 22 months-plus.
Historically, the family used manual mixing for the beef complete ration. But since early 2016 there has been a greater focus on increased ration consistency.
Now ingredient weights, mixing and chopping rates are set automatically on the farm’s Keenan mixer wagon, which the Ryles says has helped improve cattle performance and reduce finishing times by about six to eight weeks. With feed costs estimated at £12/head, this has produced an annual saving of more than £12,000.
Some 92 per cent of 200 animals which have been finished most recently have hit the deadweight premium price specifications of U+/-2, U+/-3 and R4L/H and in addition, 88 per cent have met the weight target of 370-400kg. Roughly 80 per cent are sent to processor Linden Foods, while the top 20 per cent on conformation are sold through Acklington auction mart, where they are usually purchased by private butchers.
All of the cattle spend a summer at grass and a planned programme to improve both grazing and silage quality has been implemented with considerable success (see 2017 silage analysis). Some of the larger fields, where the soil is predominantly a heavy clay loam, have been used to bring grass into the arable rotation following barley and they will remain in grass until sward productivity declines.
A mix including high-sugar perennial rye-grasses, Timothy and both red and white clover varieties has been chosen, with the winter barley prepared using a sub-soiler, followed by pressing and rolling, with the seed sown and the soil rolled for a second time, for consolidation. Spring barley is left until the 3 leaf stage before over-sowing and the soil is harrowed and rolled, to help with consolidation and establish clean swards and autumn grazing.
“This policy is integrated with our stewardship agreement and so far, the only issue which has arisen is our difficulty in controlling docks without harming the clover,” says Henry.
“A group of 40 steers were put out to graze aged 18 months this summer and were finished off grass, which was a first for us and very pleasing. Grass silage and grazed grass are such key ingredients in the cattle diet that we cannot afford for either quality or quantity to be compromised.”
Despite the modern feeding regime, the Ryles still like to freshen up the troughs manually, in order to check the health of their cattle. Henry has also developed a simple system for moving the groups at grazing.
“I take bags of the TMR out to the cattle at grass,” he says. “This makes an enormous difference, when it comes to ease of handling. Within a very short time, they will follow me from field to field or into the buildings with minimum fuss. The ability to move them on my own saves a lot on labour over the season and makes the task much safer.”
Having found a system which works, the Ryles have no plans for any major changes in the short-term, although they intend to put up an additional building within the next 12 months. At present, the cattle are not weighed, although Henry says this ’missing piece of the puzzle’ will soon be added and will be accompanied by a purpose-built handling system.
22-month-old finished Limousin cross steers.
One of the main challenges lies in sourcing the right type of cattle, he adds.
“Our cattle remain in groups of 50/60-head throughout their stay with us and ideally, we like to buy them in large batches, as it makes use of our building and field capacities,” says Henry.
“But it is becoming harder to find the type of cattle we like in high numbers.
“We are not looking for show types; just good quality healthy animals with the potential for steady weight gain. We avoid any steers which look as if they have been fed high levels of concentrate in the early stages, as we have found they do not go on to perform well on our diet mix, especially at turnout.
“Our cattle are bought privately from the same farms each year, wherever possible, and at auction we look-out for those put forward by specific breeders from whom we have bought in the past. The more rapid throughput has been a very welcome development, allowing us to finish more cattle annually without increasing the silage acreage, by implementing a more resourceful and efficient system.”
Chris Lord, of Keenan Alltech, has been involved in training the Ryles on the use of the InTouch system, which is fitted to the farm’s refurbished Keenan 115 machine.
“It uses a cloud connection to send information both to and from the machine, which displays ingredient weights and automatically sets mixing and chopping duration,” says Mr Lord.
“At one stage, it was felt the ration dry matter was too high and therefore it was adjusted to include 2kg of water per head. This helped to improve palatability and bound the ingredients together, to maintain consistency and discourage sorting.”