Just like many cattle farmers across the uplands of England, Geoff Roddam used to feed his stock on grass silage and bought-in concentrates. He kept as many cattle as his 800-acre (324ha) farm would support and used some of the barley from his 200 acres (81ha) of arable land to supplement their rations as required.
But over his 27 years of farming as a tenant at Blackcarts Farm, in Hadrian’s Wall country, just north of Hexham, it gradually began to dawn on him that there was a better way.
If he made higher quality forage, he could cut out bought-in concentrates altogether, finish his cattle on home-grown feeds and sell them to a premium market. At the same time, he could lower his stocking rate and increase his farm’s environmental credentials, taking part in Higher Level Stewardship schemes which would see ground-nesting birds, rare plants which thrive on Northumberland’s Whinstone rocks and native British cattle breeds return to the farm.
Better still, the less intensive system would require lower labour inputs so he could keep all the daily, routine work within the family. Working with his daughter, Laura, the part-time help of his wife, Vivien and recently joined by his school-leaver grandson, Jay, the theory was that they could all enjoy a high quality of life at a slower pace. Best of all, the benefits to the environment in which they farmed and the lifestyle the family would enjoy could all be achieved while they made better profits. And so, a new type of farming was born on the Roddams’ partly upland farm, which stretches from 200 to 700 feet above sea-level, is bisected by Hadrian’s Wall itself, and over half of which is classified as a Severely Disadvantaged Area. One of the driving forces to the change of direction was to cut out risk and one of the first steps in this process was to introduce home-grown protein to the crop
“We started whole-cropping beans about 10 years ago,” says Mr Roddam. “We didn’t get it right straight away, using bacterial inoculants to preserve them at first, but they didn’t do the job 100 percent. “The silage face would get warm and you could see the ration heating up in the troughs and it obviously was not that palatable. There was quite a lot of waste and the troughs had to be cleaned out fairly regularly.”
Keen to stick with the plan, he sought the advice of Michael Carpenter, Kelvin Cave’s northern area manager, who knew the best way to manage the challenges presented by wholecrop beans was to ensure air is excluded from the outset and keep the clamp airtight, and to knock out any potential contamination. He says: “Beans can become dry and stemmy so they need really good compaction and ensiling practices. So we added side-sheets and covered the top with oxygen-impermeable O2 Barrier 2in1, and weighted it down heavily. “And because they’re harvested in autumn, there’s also a risk of soil contamination as well as the growth of yeasts and moulds.
“So, rather than leave the fermentation to chance, I’d always recommend using a good quality preservative which will eliminate potential microbial contamination and promote a quick and clean fermentation,” he says.
So Mr Roddam also switched to Safesil Pro – the top-of-the-range product which contains human food-grade preservatives – and saw the transformation.
Buoyed by this success, he started conserving wholecrop cereals, which he ensiled in a plastic tube, and was unhesitating in choosing to preserve them with Safesil Pro.
“We aim to cut our wholecrop early, when the straw is still green and the grain fairly milky and cheesy,” he says. “We find this makes us the best wholecrop and if our silages are good – with high enough starch and protein – we’ve found we can grow and finish our beef on grass and forage alone.
” In fact, Mr Roddam is unusual in the area for finishing youngstock at all, with most on similar farm types selling their cattle as stores. But the progeny from his 150 suckler cows – which include a nucleus herd of Luings and a commercial herd of Simmental x Luings which are bred to an Angus as a terminal sire – will all sell direct to the abattoir, mostly destined for the M&S Select Farm Scheme.
“When M&S do their annual audit they always like the traceability of the feed and particularly like the fact that we are not buying in any GM [genetically modified] proteins, which is almost inevitable if you’re feeding soya,” he says.
Calving everything in an eight to nine week block in April and May and finishing all of his stock at 22-24 months, he says the Angus x Simm-Luing heifer carcases weigh 300-330kg, steers are 320-360kg and Simm x Luing steers a little higher at up to 380kg.
“They’ll generally grade at R4L; the premium for going any higher is not worthwhile,” he says.
Two Thirds grass silage
One third split wholecrop beans and barley
Two fifths grass silage
Two fifths split wholecrop beans and barley
One fifth wholecrop beans
Not content to rest on his laurels, Mr Roddam has sought to improve his forage further by upgrading both his grassland and his grass silage.
“We’re in Northumberland National Park and because of Hadrian’s Wall archaeology we are not allowed to plough some parts of the farm,” he says. “But we can direct drill so we have introduced red and white clover to our swards and that’s increased the protein of our silage and allowed us to reduce our nitrogen use.
“We’ve increased the percentage of fields sown with clover each year and we like to cut early to keep silage quality high. We know clover is harder to preserve than normal, so this year we’ve decided to use Safesil on the grass for the first time,” he says.
“Years ago, before we started growing wholecrop, we farmed just like everyone else around here,” he says. “But now, we have stopped spending money buying feed inputs, we only have the stock we can manage ourselves and we’re selling most of the barley we combine as we no longer need it at home, only using a small amount for calves at weaning.”
As a result, profits are up, the lifestyle is enjoyed and the family is secure in the knowledge it can survive on the farm’s own feed inputs, whatever is going on in the world outside.