A Yorkshire farmer has turned a difficult situation following this summer’s drought to everyone’s advantage in a move which could be replicated across the country to help alleviate the forage crisis.

Having grown spring beans for human consumption for many years at Pollington Grange, near Goole, Tom Bayston made the decision this year to ditch the combine and harvest his beans as wholecrop. He then bagged the bean silage in polythene tubes which he will sell to livestock producers, many of whom are already eating into this winter’s forage.

This decision by Mr Bayston shows how flexibility in farming can work in everyone’s favour as the arable farmer makes better use of his crop in a difficult year, while livestock producers gain access to an additional supply of high quality forage as their stocks are running low.

Tom Bayston (right) with Michael Carpenter from Kelvin Cave Ltd.

Mr Bayston, who farms around 1,000 acres (405ha) of arable land and is also the NFU Council delegate for the West Riding, says this year’s crop of spring beans was the poorest he has seen.

He said: “This summer, it stood at around knee-height as opposed to chest-height in a normal year, and it has about 20 per cent fewer pods.”

Estimating he would have harvested roughly one tonne per acre (2.5t/ha) if he’d gone ahead with the combine, he said this was around half the normal yield.

By choosing to wholecrop the beans instead, he said the 90 acres (36ha) he grew had been harvested by 15 August and weighed in at around 3t/acre (7.4t/ha).

Knowing wholecrop beans can be difficult to ensile, he consulted feed and forage preservation specialists, Kelvin Cave Ltd, who advised on the best approach to achieve a good fermentation.

“This is always important with bean silage which can be difficult to consolidate in order to achieve anaerobic conditions,” explained Michael Carpenter, northern area manager for Kelvin Cave Ltd. “In this instance, it was particularly important to ensure the forage would be stable after opening as it’s quite possible livestock producers buying the silage could keep it exposed to air for several days before feeding.”

Mr Bayston went ahead with the early August harvest after desiccating the green areas remaining in the crop because of uneven ripening. His contractor then used a self-propelled forager with disco header which chopped and processed the crop so the beans were crushed.

The top-of-the-range preservative, Safesil Pro, was used to ensure a quick and clean fermentation and to be certain of killing harmful bacteria and eliminating the activity of fungi and moulds.

“I recommended they used this preservative rather than an inoculant because a high dry matter, stemmy and fibrous wholecrop is amongst the most challenging of forages to compact and ensile, and some bacterial additives can give variable results,” said Mr Carpenter. “The preservative Tom used contains the human food-grade ingredients, sodium benzoate, potassium sorbate and sodium nitrite, which facilitates a rapid fermentation and gives the best aerobic
stability of any product we know.” 

A further benefit of bean silage is the numerous qualities it brings to livestock rations.

“Bean silage brings physical structure to a ration and is also a great source of protein and starch, potentially displacing a more expensive, and often imported, protein source,” he says. “Analysis of wholecrop bean silage recently made in this way in the north of England has typically been around 70 per cent dry matter and 19 per cent protein.”

Grant Mitchell of DB contracting and Chris Welburn (tipping trailer) bagging wholecrop beans – the disused wartime airfield runway is ideal for the bags.

Although the bags of silage on Pollington Grange have yet to be opened, Mr Bayston says he is so far pleased with the outcome.

Harvesting the crop early allows cultivations to begin in good time for the following crop of winter wheat, which is something which always does well after beans, or any other type of legume, have left nitrogen in the soil.

Financially, he says beans for human consumption would previously have grossed him around £150 per tonne, although prices were higher this year.  

However, although he is yet to work out a comparison of margins, he confidently expects this to be higher for the wholecrop than this year’s combinable beans.

On a farm on which he normally grows combinable crops, potatoes, carrots and vining peas, he says he would be pleased to add wholecrop beans to his regular rotation.

“I appreciate what the livestock sector is facing after a severe spring followed by flooding and then the drought, and I’m happy I can provide some extra forage,” he says. “Furthermore, we need to grow more feed in this country for farming to be more sustainable and less reliant on imports.”

Both Mr Carpenter and Mr Bayston have urged livestock farmers looking for extra forage to approach arable farmers who may still have spring bean crops yet to be harvested.

“It’s worth having that conversation,” says Mr Carpenter. “Their beans may not make the grade for combining but they may well be prepared to harvest them as wholecrop and sell them to livestock farmers.”  

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