Family Fortunes

Using crimped maize and cereals to rear and finish dairy-bred beef has transformed the fortunes of a Yorkshire farm.

Rearing pure dairy bull beef was introduced at Cross Hill Farm near Goole, as a side-line to the arable business, but today has grown to become the farm’s financially most important enterprise and enabled the next generation of the family to work at home. 

The success of the dairy-beef business has hinged upon the use of home-grown feeds, with crops chosen carefully to fit the arable rotation and to provide high energy feeds for breeds which can be challenging to finish.  

However, with the right feeds, the mainly Holstein bulls are sent to slaughter at 12 to 13 months, achieving deadweights averaging 230kg and returning a net margin of around £60/head – with home-produced feeds costed into the ration at their market values.

“With over 600 head going through every year, this makes the beef just as important as the arable business,” says Neil Welburn (pictured opposite), who farms with hiswife Deirdre on the largely tenanted Yorkshire farm.

The cattle were introduced to the farm in 2008, at around the time the couple’s son and daughter, Chris and Claire, returned respectively from Askham Bryan and Bishop Burton Colleges ‘full of ideas’.

Because of the low price of dairy bull calves, the family were able to purchase high numbers, beginning with around 100 head in their first year, but soon scaling up the operation.

“Initially, we bought two- to four-week-old calves from local dairy farmers, and sold them as stores at six to eight months at a local market,” says Mr Welburn.

They would remain on milk and creep feed until eight to 10 weeks, and then go on to the largely purchased ration.

“This included a bit of everything such as chopped lucerne, flaked maize, dried, rolled cereals and sugar beet pulp, but when we worked it out, it was costing us a fortune,” he says. “I’d say it was at least £40-£50/tonne more just because we were buying so much of it in bags.”

It was after about a year on this regime that two landmark meetings occurred, both of which would transform the system on the farm.

“We met Adam Buitelaar, (managing director of the Buitelaar Group which manages supply chains and processes rosé veal and young beef from the dairy herd) and we met Michael Carpenter (from feed and forage preservation specialists, Kelvin Cave Ltd),” he says.

The two meetings set off a series of changes which would lead to a shake-up of the arable rotations, significant revisions of the rations, and cattle being finished on the farm and sent directly to Buitelaar (the Woodhead meat plant in Lincolnshire) for slaughter.

“We had been growing wheat and getting around four tonnes/acre but when we met Michael at LAMMA in 2009, he told us that if we harvested three weeks earlier, we’d get closer to six tonnes,” recalls Mr Welburn. “He was absolutely right with this prediction, as that’s exactly what we did the following harvest.”

Although he accepts that some of the extra weight was accounted for by moisture, he says the dry matter yield per acre is also higher and the nutritional value of the crop at the time of the earlier harvest is at its peak.

The earlier-harvested wheat meant the grain had to be crimped – a process which involved passing it through rollers on the day of harvest to expose its carbohydrate and protein.

“A preservative is applied to the rolled grain which is then stored in an airtight clamp or plastic tube,” says Kelvin Cave’s Michael Carpenter. “The process involves a controlled fermentation and will retain the maximum possible nutrient value and give better performance than dried grain.”

Mr Welburn committed around 200 tonnes of wheat to crimping in the first year, admitting he was nervous about keeping a high value of feed ‘outside in plastic bags’.

“It came home to me when a neighbour pulled up and pointed out we had £30,000-worth of feed in those bags,” he says.

However, he says he liked the way the moist product fed and how the cattle performed, and that storing the crimp outside freed up shed space for cattle.

“The cattle did really well on it,” he says. “The minute we started feeding crimp, they stopped coughing – as we do have a problem with pneumonia which is under investigation.”

The area of cereals for crimping across the 900-plus acres the family farms increased every year, and in 2011 the decision was taken to apply the same technique to grain maize.

Everything except the grain is left in the field including the entire stover and centre of the cob. This makes harvesting much cleaner and protects the soil from run-off and erosion over the winter.

Everything except the grain is left in the field including
the entire stover and centre of the cob.
 This makes
harvesting much cleaner and protects the soil from
run-off and erosion over the winter.

“It’s not something that’s normally grown around here but we’ve found it fits perfectly into the crop rotation,” says Mr Welburn.

They chose to sow the maize after carrots, which are grown by a neighbour on short-term rented land and harvested in April or May. Because the maize is harvested as grain, many of the problems associated with a late harvest are overcome by the return of the crop’s stover to the land, which creates a mat under the combine on which it can travel without damaging the soil. 

“I made up my mind I was definitely going to crimp the maize – I didn’t even consider maize silage or anything else,” he says. 

“Our contractor had told us we could bank on yields of three tonnes/acre but may get up to six, and he was also exactly right,” he says. “We tried just 40 acres of maize in the first year, using the lightest, blow-away sandy land – the sort that would only yield two tonnes of wheat – and harvested 3.5 tonnes/acre.”

Rations were reformulated by independent nutritionist, Lizz Clarke, and included 3.5kg crimped maize, 1.6kg crimped wheat, 0.5kg crimped beans, 1.5kg baled silage, 1.5kg dry barley, 2kg of a high protein molasses feed and 1kg Trafford Gold.

She says: “Crimped grain is a superb energy source for cattle because it is slowly fermented so bypasses the rumen, which is perfect in this system when you are aiming to finish from 10 months onwards.

“It is better utilised than dried grain and particularly suits these Holstein cattle which are difficult to put weight on.

“It is equally suited to dairy cow rations, and is much safer to feed than dried grain and less likely to cause acidosis,” she says.

However, she says she has complemented the crimp in this ration with highly degradable ingredients to feed the rumen, which, on this farm, have variously included potatoes and molasses, depending on availability.

“In this system, energy is key while protein can be lower, and this ration analysed at a metabolisable energy of 13MJ/kg DM and 12% protein,” she says.

Today, the area of maize grown for crimping by the Welburn family has increased to 240 acres and will hopefully expand in the future, with most used on the farm and some sold to neighbouring dairy herds. A temporary clamp has been built from wrapped silage bales and has been filled with around 550 tonnes of crimped maize.

The monitor in the combine shows a yield of more
than 10t/ha and moisture content of 36.2%. 

“This has saved a substantial cost as plastic tubes are £300 a time and we’d need at least five for this amount of maize, costing around £1500,” says Mr Welburn.

“All we now have to buy on a yearly basis is O2 Barrier 2-in-1 for the top sheet at around £300, but we’ll cut this in half and use it for the sides of the clamp the following year,” he says. “Everything else including the netting is a one-off expense so it’s a cheaper and tidier way to store the crimp.”

Meanwhile, he says that crimped maize fits in perfectly with the spring-harvested, strawed carrots which are otherwise difficult to follow, is now yielding closer to 4t/acre and appeals to local landlords as it leaves the ground in a better condition than many of the alternatives.

“Rents are high and we have to compete with land for anaerobic digestion, but the landlords like the fact that we return organic matter and structure to the soil and don’t leave the field in a mess,” he says. 

“We put farmyard manure on to the land before seeding, and the only thing we take off is the grain. The combine pulls the stalks through the header and chops and lays them in a mat so there’s no mess at harvest and no exposed soil or run-off over winter.

“We feel we have found a system which dovetails perfectly with the rest of the farm, makes good use of difficult land and has doubled the turnover of the business – but most of all, it’s allowed all of the family to stay at home and work on the farm,” he says.

Main picture: The crimped maize clamp - constructed from bales.
Inset: Ingredients in this TMR include crimped maize, crimped wheat and dry silage.

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