Getting one job right on the farm can sometimes feed into another and so create a virtuous cycle, and this is the happy situation which has been experienced by brothers, Andrew and Mark Watkins, and their parents, Richard and Linda.
Farming around 600 breeding ewes and 150 head of cattle at Vineyard Farm in Walterstone near Hereford, the process started when the family decided to return to producing maize silage which they knew could be successfully grown on their 350 acre (142ha), slightly drought-prone, farm.
“Part of our reason for bringing in maize was to safeguard ourselves against a lack of forage in a drought situation as, with our south-facing slopes overlying rock, we can be without grass from June onwards,” says Andrew Watkins.
“We knew we could grow maize here as we’d done it in the 1990s and we also felt it would be a great addition to our beef rations,” he says.
It was therefore with great disappointment that the first year’s crop failed to live up to expectations.
“You could see it heating in the clamp and the troughs, and it was obviously unappetising, which was reflected in growth rates of the cattle and they weren’t content,” he says. “The silage pits were also dug into earth banks which were making the problems worse as water seeped into the forage, despite the side-sheeting.”
It was after this first season that Mr Watkins sought specialist help, and visited the Kelvin Cave stand at the Royal Welsh Show in 2017. Kelvin Cave’s technical director, Andy Strzelecki, took a holistic approach to the Watkins’ situation when he visited the farm.
Offering wide-ranging advice on the foraging process, clamping and sheeting, he admits: “Before any other changes were made, I wanted the family to upgrade the clamps as the first priority!”
Bolstered in confidence by the advice, the team worked hard to build a concrete-shuttered clamp to take that autumn’s maize silage. In the process, they followed the advice to treat the crop with a hi-spec preservative and make extra efforts to compact the clamp and prevent the ingress of air after sheeting.
“Maize silage ferments very easily but is almost always prone to instability in the presence of air,” says Mr Strzelecki. “That’s why I recommended strict attention to compaction, and sheeting with the impermeable polyethylene double-layered O2 Barrier 2in1.”
Also recommending treating with top-of-the-range preservative, Safesil Pro, he explains: “Amongst its ingredients this product contains high concentrations of the human food preservatives, sodium benzoate and potassium sorbate, which are proven to eliminate yeast and mould growth
which would otherwise be expected to occur in the presence of air.
“This means that even after the clamp is opened, the preservative ensures long-term stability both at the face and in the feed trough.”
The difference according to Mr Watkins was ‘night and day’.
He says: “The following year we had a totally different sample. There was no surface waste and never any waste in the troughs and the cattle did really well.”
In fact, he says he’s very happy with growth rates achieved by stock on the rations, which for the finishers (450kg onwards) comprise 50:50 grass and maize silage with rolled barley, minerals, a little soya and straw.
“We didn’t actually save our weight records before, but now we use the FarmIT 3000 system from Border Software we have a log of everything,” he says. “This has shown the dairy-cross-continental finishers achieving liveweight gains averaging 1.32kg/day and the best achieving 1.8kg/day.”
Pointing out that grass silage as well as the maize is also now markedly better than before, he says: “We used Andy’s advice for the grass silage too and adjusted how it was made.
“We don’t leave it to wilt for as long as before so it deteriorates less in the field,” he says. “We aim to have it clamped within 24 hours, we treat with Safesil Challenge and compact, side-sheet and cover in the same way as we do with the maize.
“This has cut out the risk of a poor fermentation and the heating and waste and is helping the farm produce as much as we can from traceable, home-grown feeds,” he says.
A further knock-on benefit has been bringing the silage-making completely in-house and the purchase of extra equipment, including a self-propelled forage harvester owned by Mark.
“We now have maize and grass headers for the forager which has given us control over our own silage-making,” he says. “My brother runs his own contracting business so this has added an extra stream of income for his business.”
With three concrete shuttered silage clamps now on the farm, the family is also able to look ahead for more home-grown feeds to conserve on the farm.
“This year, we had to sow a lot of spring barley because wet weather prevented autumn drilling, so we are now thinking of crimping spring cereals for the first time,” he says.
This means he can harvest the grain early and preserve it without drying, using the preservative, CrimpSafe 300, before clamping, in a similar way to forage.
His nutritionist, Lizz Clarke, has been supportive of this move and says: “Crimped barley is processed slower in the ruminant than dry rolled grain and does not create a rumen acidosis load. Crimped cereals can be fed alongside rolled cereals, providing an extra energy source, allowing more cereals in total to be fed and making greater use of home-grown feeds.”
Summing up the effects of the changes, Mr Watkins says: “We are completely focussed on what makes the money and this has transformed our farming and profitability without a shadow of doubt.
“We knew we had an issue before and we had it confirmed by Andy. We can see the evidence after the changes – and that speaks volumes,” he says. “It’s one thing to identify what’s going wrong, but Andy has come on to the farm and pointed us in the right direction.
“What we are doing now is no more difficult than before, but we know what we want to achieve and are taking the right steps to get there,” he says.
Silage preservatives used at Vineyard Farm
Safesil Pro, used on the Watkins’ maize silage is formulated for use on high dry matter forage. It will inhibit the growth of undesirable micro-organisms, and is particularly effective at preventing the growth of yeasts and moulds.
Safesil Challenge, used on the Watkins’ grass silage is formulated for use on wetter forages where there is a risk of a poor fermentation and fermentation losses. It is particularly effective at inhibiting spoilage bacteria such as enterobacteria and clostridia.
Both Safesil products contain human food grade preservatives which have been independently reported to guarantee prolonged storage stability in the peer-reviewed Journal of Dairy Science, 94:824-831.