Scottish beef producer, Gordon Smith, set himself the target of cutting costs of production by £200 for every animal reared in his herd. Today he’s close to reaching this goal, thanks largely to changing his feed.
Cutting costs of production is on every farmer’s wish list but often comes with the fear of a decline in performance. But when Scottish farmer, Gordon Smith, set himself the goal of reducing input costs by £200/head for every animal reared on Fallaw Farm, he was relieved to find it came with a sharp increase in daily liveweight gain.
Farming 180 Simmental cross Limousin cows with his father, Douglas, brother, Fraser and wife, Caron, he says he has been staggered by the growth rates achieved since they moved their youngstock on to lower-cost feeds.
He says: “We weighed a group of 56 this morning and their average daily liveweight gain over the past month has been 2.2kg. There were a couple of poorer animals in this group pulling the average down, but at least two individual bulls hit a growth rate of over 3kg/day.
“We’re delighted with this growth which is beyond anything I thought possible,” he says. “However, we’re confident in its accuracy having invested in digital scales.”
The cost-cutting process began after Gordon returned home from college at SRUC’s Craibstone campus in 2009, when he joined the family’s mixed livestock and arable farm near Arbroath, on the north east coast of Scotland.
Farming 500 acres (202ha) in total, of which 360 acres (146ha) are owned, he says: “We’d always fed rolled, dry barley with some wheat distillers dark grains for added protein, and found performance to be acceptable.”
However, he felt low-level acidosis was pulling things back, while the rolled barley attracted grain mites in storage. So, the decision was taken to introduce a buffer to improve rumen health, along with some molasses.
“We’d been averaging growth rates of 1.4kg/day throughout the fattening period and the new feed brought this up by 0.3-0.4kg/day,” he says. “But the two new ingredients added 20p to the cost, which – including straw and hay – rose from £1.86 to £2.06/head/day.”
Gordon therefore continued in his search for better value but was anxious to avoid ingredients which were likely to be acidotic.
“I discounted urea-based products partly on the basis of their high cost but I’d also seen cattle on them which were not well developed and had quite distended guts,” he says.
Also observing that urea grain preservatives give off large amounts of ammonia, he was concerned by their poor environmental credentials and inbuilt inefficiencies.
“The thing which finally took my eye was crimped grain which I thought was very cost-effective and could achieve high levels of performance,” he said.
Crimping his own home-grown barley meant rolling the grain and adding the preservative, CrimpSafe 300, and storing the product in airtight conditions, such as a clamp or polythene tube.
However, with no spare clamp on the farm and unable to find a local contractor with bagging equipment, he decided to buy his own bagger.
“Ian Hall, from feed preservation specialists Kelvin Cave Ltd, found us a second-hand Murska 700 mill and bagger in one machine,” he explains. “We had it shipped from the south of England and ventured into crimping for the first time last year.”
On feeding ration treated with Crimpsafe 300:
“The cattle look fantastic on it –
they have drum-tight skin and so
much muscle they look like they’ve
spent every day in the gym.”
With winter barley harvest taken early, on 14 July, he says he learnt from this process how to set the combine for better results next year.
“The combine needs adjusting for the higher moisture grain but it threshes so easily,” he says. “We also had no barley heads on the ground and have seen no groundkeepers coming through in the following crop of grass.” Also observing that the year was difficult for cereals with a lot of secondary tillering, he says: “The small, green grains would have been completely lost if the crop had been harvested and stored dry, but they could all be effectively preserved in the higher moisture crimp.”
Baling and wrapping straw straight from the back of the combine, he adds: “This was also completely spotless and very palatable for the cattle.”
Ian explains that cereals are usually cut for crimping around three weeks before dry cereal harvest and the CrimpSafe 300 preserves grain at moisture contents between 25% and 45%.
“This means it comes off the field in optimum condition, with slightly higher yields, even on a dry matter basis, and usually before any disease has damaged the crop,” he says. “There’s also far less grain loss in the field which explains the farm’s clean grass crop the following year.”
However, the livestock benefits on Fallaw Farm were said to be even greater than those from the agronomy, with growth rates up a further 0.4kg per day over the already improved ration.
“We actually monitored this closely by keeping two groups of cattle which we weighed and grouped as identically as it’s possible to do,” explains Gordon.
One group was fed the dry grain ration including the dark grains, buffer and molasses while the other was fed just crimp and dark grains, both on an ad lib basis and with added minerals. Liveweights were taken regularly to provide an accurate comparison over roughly three months before the stock were ready for sale.
“The group on the crimp-based ration averaged a growth rate of 2.2kg/day while those on the dry grain ration, including the molasses and buffer, grew at 1.8kg/day,” he says. “Also, the time taken for the first bulls on the crimp-mix group to be ready for slaughter was about 18 days earlier than those on the dry grain molasses mix.”
With feed priced at £2.06 per head for the molasses-based ration, the time saved represented a feed input saving of £37.08 per head.
“However, had the cheaper crimp ration been used over a 180-day fattening period, a further 20p/head would be saved, equating to an additional £36 per head saving, totalling £73.08 overall,” he says.
He bases his figures on carefully calculated costs for every ingredient, with crimped cereals themselves found to be comparable or slightly cheaper than producing dry grain.
Combining lower feed costs with faster growth rates has increased the farm’s profits from beef, with entire males and heifers now finishing at 12.5 to 13.5 months weighing 680-700kg (approx 400kg deadweight), and consistently achieving U grades.
“The ration preserved with CrimpSafe 300 also seems to keep a long time and be very palatable, and high moisture grain seems a very natural way of feeding stock,” he adds. “The cattle look fantastic on it – they have drum-tight skin and so much muscle they look like they’ve spent every day in the gym.”
Ian explains the effects of crimp on health and performance: “It’s safer for rumen stability, is more digestible and degradable than conventional dry, rolled grain and can be safely fed at a higher rate.”
Today, the family continues in its endeavour to reduce costs of production and is now close to its goal of cutting £200 per head.
“Other improvements which are getting us there include reducing age at first calving, reseeding some of the more open leys with modern grasses and generally improving our grassland management,” says Gordon. “We have also built a subsoiler which has really helped our drainage and improved grass yields.”
An experimental crop of spring beans has also been a success so far, and has the potential to replace the dark grains, further reducing bought-in feeds.
“Of all the actions we’ve taken, we have to remember that feed represents 70% of costs, so any benefits with this will have the greatest impact,” says Gordon. “We haven’t fed any stock on crimp for a full year yet, but are now using it from the creep ration onwards. Those which started on it young are doing so much better so we think the benefits will increase.
“We started crimping on a small scale as we wanted to learn with a small batch but we wish we’d produced more,” he adds. “It’s simple and cheap and there’s no way we’ve seen growth rates like it on any other feed. This year our plan is that everything will be crimped.”
Fallaw Farm facts
• Family-run farm of 500 acres (202ha) in Arbroath
• Beef, sheep and arable enterprises
• Aim to cut £200 per head from costs of production
• Beef formerly fed dry rolled barley and dark grains
• Beef now fed crimped barley and dark grains
• Average growth rates in final three months,
• Top growth rates for finishers exceed 3kg/day
• Crimp is now introduced with the calves’ creep feed
• This year all the farm’s cereals will be crimped