Keith Barrow, Somerset, has changed the way he feeds his cattle and has reduced costs, improved nutrition and opened opportunities elsewhere on-farm. Ann Hardy reports.
Beef and sheep producer Keith Barrow believes a revolution is coming in the way we feed grain to our livestock and fails to understand why the system he is using on his West Somerset farm has not taken hold across the farming industry.
Farming at Higher Halsey Cross, Nether Stowey, on the fringes of the Quantock Hills, Mr Barrow and his sons James and George have transformed production on their family unit to accommodate more than 800-head of cattle and 550 ewes, and still leave surplus land available for rent by a local biogas plant.
Always keen to make every acre work hard for the business and wanting to feed stock as far as possible on home-grown feeds, Mr Barrow says a key ingredient of the cattle rations is moist crimped grain.
Having fed dried grain for many years and contemplated the cost of a new grain store and dryer as the business grew, he knew he would have little change from £100,000.
He says: “I could find a decent second-hand grain dryer for £26,000 and the grain store would have cost £60,000, but this seemed an awful lot of money. I could build a new livestock shed for less.”
In search of alternatives, he says he stumbled across ‘a product which suited us perfectly’ at the Royal Welsh Show.
He says: “It was on the Kelvin Cave stand in 2012 where I first saw crimped grain and realised, with the right preservative, we could store it like silage, even outside in a clamp in the yard.”
Giving the system a go at the earliest opportunity, he says built a long and narrow clamp from large straw bales within the existing silage shed in the first year.
Cereal harvest was brought forward to begin on July 10, when the farm’s contractor was delighted to have the work ahead of his peak demand and the flexibility offered by harvesting higher moisture grain.
Mr Barrow says: “We found between 30-33 per cent moisture, grain ran through the combine and roller brilliantly and allowed us to build a perfect clamp. We prefer to work with it at under 35 per cent as it allows for better handling.”
Continuing this system and increasing the crimped grain acreage every year since, he says: “The contractor now comes to us before anyone else and can combine all day, even when it is raining. Before that, he could only harvest between about 12 noon and 7pm, which was not fair on him and was a slow process for us.”
Just as important as timing was the quantity and quality of grain, which increased from about 8.7 tonnes/hectare (3.5t/acre) at 14 per cent moisture to 11-12t/ha (4.5-5t/acre) at 30 per cent moisture.
David Warner, Kelvin Cave’s southern area manager, says: “Some, but not all, of the extra yield is obviously explained by added moisture, but you are harvesting a cleaner crop with fewer losses from disease at this earlier time, which also gives a higher dry matter yield per hectare.
“The nutritional value before the crop fully ripens is also at its peak and fibre is more digestible.”
Mr Barrow adds: “When you look at these figures, crimp looks really attractive on a cost basis, as our overall costs are similar whether we are harvesting 3.5t or 5t/acre.”
The only equipment required for the crimping process was a bruiser or roller for breaking the grain surface, which was already on-farm, having previously been used for rolling dry grain.
Mr Barrow says: “We decided to upgrade to a Korte 1000HD which we purchased in partnership with a neighbour. He uses it throughout the year to roll cereals for his dairy cows and we use it for just three or four days in summer.
“It is a fantastic piece of equipment. It really does what it says on the tin and will crimp really well all day.”
Meanwhile, rations for cattle were adjusted to make use of the crimp, which today is included at up to 12kg/head/day.
Beef nutritionist David Hendy compiles the farm’s rations and says: “Crimp is excellent from a nutritional perspective, as it is safer for the rumen and more digestible than dry rolled grain, so I am happy to include it at these levels.
“It also gives us opportunity to make sure cattle are finished at a younger age and therefore carcases do not end up overweight.”
Mr Barrow adds: “We have no bloat problems at all and we do not get acidosis.”
On these rations, uncastrated beef cross bulls, originating from the dairy herd, are typically finished at 15-16 months, with 70 per cent grading R, 20 per cent U, 5 per cent E and five per cent O+. Almost all have a fat class of 3 and deadweights range between 340-370kg.
A further benefit to the whole system has come through the introduction of a top-of-the-range silage preservative which has been used on grass and maize silage and allows much more flexibility for the team at feed-out.
Mr Barrow says: “I switched to this product on the recommendation of Mr Warner, as our clamps are open 52 weeks a year and we wanted to avoid losses we knew we were getting through heating.
“Since we made the switch, we have wasted virtually nothing and feed remains stone cold at both the clamp face and in the trough.”
The farm's 130-head suckler herd consists mostly of Limousins, Simmentals and British Blues.
The Higher Hasley Cross Farm herd consists of 800 cattle, bought as dairy cross beef calves.
This has allowed the team to feed a full mixer wagon at a time, with feed lasting well and remaining completely cold for the 36 hours it stays in the trough.
Mr Barrow says: “This optimises running costs and our use of labour and allows us to put out feed every day-and-a-half.
“On day one, we feed in the morning; on day two, we feed in the evening; then every third day, we do not need to put out feed at all.
“By the following morning, cattle have cleaned up every last scrap with no wastage at all.
“We constantly look at the business and continually try to improve performance. It is small changes like these which add up to a big difference.”
In this respect, crimping has had the biggest impact of all, as in addition to its cost and nutritional benefits, it has brought further knock-on gains.
Mr Barrow says: “When we combine in July, we get a fantastic crop of straw which we can sell at a premium for use as animal feed.
“Weed and disease control is improved and autumn cultivations also start early. As soon as harvest is complete in July, digestate [from the biogas plant] goes on to the land, and we do one pass with the drill into the stubble and sow Italian rye-grass.
“This will be ready to graze in the first week of September, allowing a crop of store lambs to be brought-in for finishing.
“It is no good looking at just one thing. You have to consider the bolt-ons in farming and these have all contributed to our healthy margins from livestock.”
With three generations now on-farm, including parents Raymond and Freda and his two sons always looking for growth opportunities, Mr Barrow says they have to keep expanding and will soon reach 1,000-head of cattle.
Today, the family are firmly committed to crimping grain and no longer harvest any dry cereals. They have put down a purpose-built concrete base at a cost of £4,000 and will bring in self-standing concrete walls to allow for a robust and bigger clamp, although Mr Barrow prefers to keep this under the roof of his grass silage clamp to avoid exposure to the elements.
Mr Barrow says: “I really cannot understand why crimp is not more popular as it ticks all the boxes. When you do the costings, it is such an obvious answer.
“Years ago, people used to make hay all the time and it was unusual to make silage. Now it is the norm to make silage and odd to make hay.
“I think when people latch on, it will eventually become the norm to crimp grain and we will see far less dry grain used as a livestock feed.”
‘Grower’ ration: four to 12 months of age, average intake/head/day:
‘Finisher’ ration: 12 months onwards, average intake/head/day: