Home-made creep feed, milled through a Murska 350, has enhanced the fortunes of a Kent producer, reducing costs, increasing growth rates and improving profitability for his marshland-fed beef.
Convention has it that creep feed is bought in bags or in bulk and is produced by a feed compounder. But Kent beef producer, Jamie Loveridge, has turned his back on this approach, following a series of disappointing loads arriving on his family farm. Instead,
having no arable land of his own, he has opted to make his own calf creep based almost entirely on ingredients bought from local farmers. As a result, he has not only spared himself the disappointment of receiving inconsistent quality feed as it turns up on the farm, he has also cut his costs of production, achieved his enterprise’s best ever physical and financial performance, and been able to fund the expansion of his herd.
Today, Jamie and his father, Keith, keep around 300 suckler cows around Rye Street Farm near Rochester, which are run extensively across various dispersed blocks of mainly rented land totalling around 1,400 acres (566 hectares). With much located on Kent’s northernmost Hoo Peninsula and the neighbouring Isle of Sheppey, it largely comprises marshland adjoining the Thames Estuary. Most is rented from the RSPB, some is designated an SSSI and it is all in Higher Level Stewardship.
“The land is definitely managed for the ground-nesting birds and the purpose of the cattle is to create the right habitat for them,” he says, observing that nitrogen use on the marshes is prohibited. “We are limited on how heavily we can stock, in order to protect the birds, and the cows have to eat the grass to the right height. The grass is definitely managed in a less than idyllic way from a farming point of view as creating the right habitat for the birds is the priority.”
In fact, each year, Jamie even has to apply for a derogation to keep creep feeders on the land, but says it is worth the effort since feeding his stock well at a young age is integral to their lifelong performance.
“If we are going to finish them in good time, they have to be intensively fed from the start,” he says. “The younger they are, the more efficient they are at converting feed into meat, so this is the most important phase.”
Creep feeding itself has helped him to move away from a system of extensive rearing (producing store cattle at around 18 months) to a system of finishing bulls and steers at 12-16 months. Heifers are kept either to finish at 18-22 months or to be retained as replacements for bulling at 14 months.
The annual cycle now adhered to is rigid, with calving over a strict nine-week period. Calving in yards from 20 February, the cows (either native breeds or dairy cross continental) and calves (all sired by a Limousin bull) stay in their maternity group until they’re turned out in spring.
Unable to feed the calves concentrates while they’re in the yards, simply through lack of feeder space, it is as they’re turned on to the marshes that creep feed is first introduced.
Having had sole responsibility for the beef for the past three years, Jamie initially bought creep feed in 6mm pencils which would theoretically be consumed in good quantities.
Using a top-of-the-range pencil from a reputable company, he wasn’t unhappy with the product or performance, but wanted to experiment with blends and straights.
“I don’t like the idea of a product being ground to within an inch of its life and I also like to know the quality of the raw ingredients,” he says. Starting by moving to a blend, his first experience of this was not at all good.
“My first 12-tonne delivery looked like sweepings from the floor,” he says. “This really opened my eyes to the quality of feed we were buying, especially since this was the blend which would have gone into the pencil we had previously been using.
“We did try to feed this as creep but ended up with a trough full of dust so intakes were very poor.”
Continuing to persevere with blends with mixed results, he says the final straw came when he was guaranteed the composition of every load would be the same from one artic to the next.
“The first load from this particular company had been exactly what I wanted and wasn’t dusty at all,” he says. “But after the second load was delivered, you couldn’t go in the barn for dust for at least half an hour – there was no comparison in the two loads.”
Increasingly disillusioned with the option he had chosen, he decided to take a step further
back and started buying straights.
Investing in a roller mill – a Murska 350 which would process both cereals and pulses – he started looking locally for ingredients.
“I wanted to feed whole oats as I had a local source and knew calves did well on them,” says Jamie. “But I was replacing a 16 per cent protein pencil with a cereal of 11-13 per cent protein, so knew the oats would have to be balanced, including for minerals.”
Having bought the roller mill from Kelvin Cave Ltd, he returned to the company for advice on additional ingredients he could process at home.
Michael Carpenter, from the company, agreed that oats would be good for the calves because of their high digestible fibre.
He said: “Whole oats can be safely fed to young animals until around eight or nine months, and will help with their rumen development.”
Formulating a creep ration for Jamie’s calves, he included 345kg/t oats, 185kg/t rolled barley, 135kg/t rolled beans, all of which were locally grown. The only long-distance bulk ingredients were wheat distillers pellets and 115kg/t of sugar beet shreds, plus minerals with a live yeast (sourced from Kelvin Cave Ltd).
“It immediately produced a great physical quality blend that looked good enough to eat,” says Jamie. “I knew every ingredient in it was high quality and there was nothing in there just to pack it out.”
The creep feed was costed at £179 per tonne, which compared with £204 per tonne for the previously purchased blend.
But more important than this was the increase in intakes which Jamie says was immediate and quickly reached 3kg/head per day in the ad lib fed bulls, steers and heifer replacements. However, the slower-reared heifers were restricted to grass and milk.
With an analysis of 18 per cent protein, 31 per cent starch and a metabolisable energy of 12.75 MJ/kg DM, it also lifted performance.
Remaining on the creep until winter housing, this (for the bulls) involved a gradual transition to another hi-spec home-mixed ration based on rolled wheat, barley and beans. Meanwhile, heifers and steers were fed a TMR including the same concentrate ingredients.
“We had never finished animals on the farm until February 2018 but I was certainly happy with their performance,” says Jamie. “The bulls were finished and fit to go in less than 12 months, and I actually found myself waiting to send them to the abattoir, where 12 months is the minimum age they’ll accept.”
Crediting both the creep and finisher ration with the performance, it is clear that a keen enthusiasm, attention to detail and health – through worming, fluking, fly-tagging and vaccination programmes – are also playing their part.
“The physical quality of what they are eating is better than anything I have seen or bought before,” adds Jamie. “It says it all when you know you have accurately aged cattle which you’re waiting to send away and which are killing out at a deadweight of 380kg, which is 40kg less than the buyer’s upper limit.”
With all of the steers and bulls sent away from the farm by June, he says the saving of avoiding a second summer of turnout is not only right for the farm and his landlords, but good for the bottom line.
“My profit per head has increased by finishing cattle at home and, with fewer youngstock out at grass, we are able to keep more cows on the same ground,” he says.