Every year since he started farming in his own right, Jonathan Guilding has forward-bought concentrates to feed his beef cattle. With good trading advice, he’s been able to buy well, avoid price peaks and secure his supplies for the 400 head he finishes each year at Culver Street Farm near Stogursey in West Somerset.
But not this year.
He says: “Since we started here in 2009, the system of forward-buying at a set price has not let me down. We would buy around 150 tonnes of an 18% protein, cereal-based blend which would see us through the year. We could doctor the blend however we liked to match our forage, which we’d do in consultation with our nutritionist.
“But today, this isn’t feasible as the concentrate price is too high,” he says.
Farming 500 acres of tenanted land in partnership with his wife, Ann, and father, Andrew, it has now become imperative that he finds alternatives to bought-in feed and curtails increases in costs of production.
His first step in this process has been to consider more home-grown forage – the cheapest feed source after grazing on any farm. Already producing superb quality grass silage, this will continue to form the basis of his rations.
In fact, his silage was described by his independent nutritionist, Rob Mintern, as ‘amazing in quality, especially in a difficult year’.
Rob says: “It was amusing that a beef client produced better silage in 2021 than most 10,000+ litre dairy herds.”
His comment was based on an analysis of 12.1MJ/kg DM metabolisable energy, 17.9% protein, a D-value of 75.8, together with low ammonia nitrogen and massive intake characteristics (see below).
“When you have silage this good, you only need a small amount of high-quality concentrate to make better use of the forage,” he says.
Keys to silage quality
Jonathan describes the keys to achieving this quality astaking multi-cuts which begin in late April; personally taking charge at the clamp to pace the arrival of trailers and ensure each layer is compacted; using a SilaPactor, which he says lives up to its promise of increasing silage density by 40%; and using the preservative, Safesil. This product inhibits the activity of yeasts and moulds and ensures the feed value of grass is quickly preserved and retained. (See panel at end of this field study for more silage-making details.)
Added to this is attention to detail for sheeting, and the use of short-term leys of modern Italian, perennial and hybrid ryegrasses which are down for 24 months.
“Taking multi-cuts is a mindset thing,” he says. “It took me a while to get over the need for big yields but you soon see the saving in concentrate.”
Equally, he says he will not scrimp on the products he needs to preserve the silage well, whether that’s the quality of top sheeting (he used O2 2in1 Barrier last year), heavy duty side sheets, or a proven preservative.
“Yes, there are hundreds of additives on the market but why change something when it’s working so well,” he says. “We also have a very wide pit face which stays absolutely cold, and we only take feed to some far-away stock every three days and find it’s just as cold on day-three as it was on the day it went into the trough.
“This represents a massive saving in diesel and labour as we only take the tractor and feeder wagon on the 15-mile round trip every three days.”
The keeping quality of silage is reflected across the farm where the family say they have absolutely no wastage either in the pit, on its shoulders or in the trough.
But the proof of the process is in the eating and the liveweight gains the ration achieves.
The rearing system
The dairy x beef cattle come on to the farm aged between four and 14 months, in the largest workable batches and from regular private sources.
“We’ll pick up from some farms just once a year, buying either per kilogram liveweight or per head,” says Jonathan. “Everything has to be bought right, and if we can’t see a profit in it, we’ll just walk away.”
Generally having a mix of 50% continental cross and 50% Angus cross, the two groups will go out to grass in spring and early summer, the natives on to marginal grassland on the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s nearby Steart Marshes while the continentals remain at home, getting the best of the farm’s high quality, short-term leys from late April until June.
These leys fit into the arable rotation which includes forage rye and maize, both for anaerobic digestion, and winter wheat.
“We aim to achieve 1kg daily liveweight gain at grass and make up more over winter, generally hitting our targets of 1.2-1.3kg/day for growers and 1.55kg/day when fattening,” he says.
As the grass drops off in later summer, concentrates are introduced as a supplement to the grass.
In winter, the TMR includes freshweights of 12kg, 20kg and 20kg per head of grass silage for calves, rearers and finishers respectively, all with the addition of caustic wheat (1.5kg, 2kg and 2.5kg respectively), a protein blend (see table) and minerals.
But this year, this is set to change.
Since grass protein is so high, Jonathan intends to build on the success of his silage and grow more energy in the form of forage maize, potentially cutting out bought-in concentrate use altogether.
“We know we can grow maize as we already do it for AD so we now plan to use some of our maize – albeit a different variety – for our cattle,” he says.
So, this year, after 140 acres were cut for silage on 21 April, 60 acres of this land went straight into maize.
“Our plan is to boost the ration’s starch with maize silage and buy in very little concentrate, maybe only for the growing cattle,” he says.
“All of this will be subject to the analysis of our silage, but if it’s as good as last year, it’s possible we won’t have to buy any at all,” he says.
“However, I’m not convinced the analysis will be quite so high as we take standing samples before mowing and indications are that protein will be lower this year,” he says.
He also analyses a full mineral profile to ensure he doesn’t buy minerals which aren’t needed.
Confident in his move into maize, he says he will shift some land to single-cut swards of pure Italian ryegrass, which he’ll cut in April and follow with maize to be sown in April and May. Expectations are that grass silage in the ration will be reduced by around a half and complemented with maize, so creating a better balance of rumen degradable protein and energy.
“Forecasts show we will achieve significant savings in concentrates this year by using maize silage,” he says.
Asked how he’ll preserve his maize, he says he’ll continue to follow the same silage-making practice he does with grass, continuing to take advice from Kelvin Cave Ltd when the need arises.
As Kelvin Cave remarks: “Maize is prone to aerobic instability caused by yeasts and moulds, and can heat in the clamp and at feedout, causing both invisible digestible dry matter losses and visible spoilage.
“A high concentration of active ingredients is needed in a silage preservative – namely potassium sorbate and sodium benzoate – which is key to the suppression of yeasts.
“So, my recommendation for the maize will be to stick with the Safesil range with which the farm has already enjoyed so much success.”
Grass silage making on Culver Street Farm
- Multi-cut silaging system beginning with first cut this year on 21 April
- 24-month grass mix comprising Italian, perennial and hybrid ryegrasses
- Safesil preservative to stop yeast and mould spoilage, cut waste and keep silage cold
- Delivery of grass to silage pit paced by keeping Jonathan on the SilaPactor at the clamp
- Extra weight and compaction with SilaPactor increases silage density by up to 40%
- Heavy duty side sheeting and O2 2in1 Barrier on top to prevent ingress of oxygen
- Cover with ClampNet to protect against vermin and bird damage
- Weight with tyre rings for ease of handling, cleanliness and absence of wire
- Round bales also made using a contractor with Safesil applicator on the baler
Culver Street Farm Facts
- 500-acre tenancy ( arable and beef) in West Somerset using family labour and contractors
- Throughput of 500 beef per year bought at 4-14 months and sold at 18-20 months
- Purchase continentals (British Blue, Limousin and Simmental) and Angus from dairy Herds
- Deadweights of 320kg (heifers), 360kg (steers) at grades of mostly 0+3/4L and R+3/-4L
- Beef now fed crimped barley and dark grains
- Feed home-grown grass silage and now replacing most concentrates with maize silage
- Sample grass before cutting and silage every 5-6 weeks to balance and optimise ration