As Yorkshire beef and arable producer, Guy Prudom reflects on his farming system of the mid-1990s, he feels it bears little relation to the methods he uses today. Those were the days when his fields were often left fallow in winter, his cattle were finished on intensive rations including bought-in protein, and his crops were boosted with plentiful supplies of artificial nitrogen. It was a traditional family farm in many senses, sending off finished cattle aged two years or more, growing winter cereals and oilseed rape using conventional cultivations, and using home-grown rolled barley as the basis of livestock rations.
But since that time, step-by-step changes have been made, punctuated by the occasional eureka moment, which have gradually but surely transformed the farm. And despite a significant cut in purchased inputs, productivity and profitability have steadily climbed, while sustainability has been rewarded by chemical giant, BASF, who named the farm as runner-up in the inaugural Rawcliffe Bridge Award for Sustainability. This recognition was not only for the farm’s environmental credentials, including exceptional performance for carbon emissions, but also for its financial sustainability and its positive engagement with other farmers and the broader community.
Spanning around 405 hectares (1,000 acres) in three distinct blocks, the Prudom family’s tenanted business is centred around the largely arable operation at Northfields Farm, close to Runswick Bay just north of Whitby, while the remaining half spans two blocks of upland just under the moorland line near the village of Egton. All is within the North York Moors National Park.
Until recently an AHDB Strategic Farm, some 200 Stabiliser suckler cows and 50 in-calf heifers are kept on the upland acreage, whose performance has been tightened with every passing year.
The switch to the Stabilisers from a continental base was driven by the desire to improve productivity, with some of the breeds formerly used passed up for their focus on the showring rather than performance.
“The Stabiliser is not as pretty, but is a more consistent performer than the continentals,” says Guy.
This is reflected on his own farm where close to 100 per cent of his cattle hit the right weight category and 93 per cent achieve the desired grade, at R4L or better, all within 15-17 months for steers and 20-22 months for heifers. Target dead weights of 335-340kg (steers) and 325kg (heifers) are also achieved, with all selling either to Dunbia or Dovecote Park.
“There’s no better feeling than getting a grade sheet back from a wagonload of cattle and they’ve all hit the spec – it gives you a sense of pride,” he says.
The system through which this is achieved is radically different from that of the past, with all cows calving within a strict eight weeks from early March, rotationally grazed to improve grass growth and utilisation, and calves weaned at 200 days in late September or early October.
“The weaned calves from Egton go down to the lowland unit which means we get a lot of feet off the ground,” he explains. “This means we can keep the cows out for longer, so reducing our wintering costs.”
Steers will be housed until they are sold the following spring and summer, while around 50-70 replacement females will be sorted in February, with the remainder turned out to grass and later brought in, and on to a short, sharp finishing ration to be sold by around 20 months.
From weaning onwards, both steers and heifers are weighed monthly and great care is taken with both their ration and vaccination programme, to optimise health and performance.
“Since about 2001-2002 we’ve been crimping our grain,” says Guy, referring to the main ingredient in all growing and finishing rations. “Dad [Peter] and I went to look at a system on another farm and we were blown away by it and have never looked back.”
The process he describes – of harvesting the grain moist and rolling, preserving and clamping on the day of harvest – is increasingly favoured by both dairy and beef producers, particularly for its benefits to both animal performance and agronomy.
“The simplicity of the crimping system is a big attraction as we gain three weeks with the combine which is important to our farming operation,” he explains. “It also saves a lot of handling as the grain goes into our crimping machine – a Korte 1400 [from Kelvin Cave Ltd], with a preservative applicator which is still going strong after 20 years – and into the silage pit where it’s compacted and sealed.
“When it comes out of the pit it is just dropped into the Keenan with everything else in the total mixed ration.”
He compares this with his previous process involving a later harvest, drying grain, moving it into a dry bin, then into a hopper over the grain mill and into a stationary mixer, where bags of a protein blend were added, ready for feeding into hoppers.
“There were far too many processes,” he admits, describing his introduction to crimp as a ‘eureka moment’.
Michael Carpenter, Kelvin Cave’s technical director, says crimp is also popular because of its beneficial effects on livestock performance.
“Crimp is safer for the rumen and more digestible than dry rolled grain so can be fed in higher quantities, is less likely to cause acidosis and will help achieve fast growth and younger finishing, all of which is reflected on Guy’s farm,” he says.
Here, weaned calves receive 2kg/head/day of crimped barley and its inclusion increases to 10kg/day in the steers’ finisher TMR (see table).
A further benefit of the crimp comes through its greater flexibility, not only in its earlier date and wider weather window for harvest, but in helping overcome many agronomic problems.
“We’ve had some really wet years when winter-sown crops have not established well and we’ve been able to stitch in patches in spring – even of a different cereal,” explains Guy. “Harvesting uneven crops like this at 30 per cent moisture for crimping is easy, whereas trying to harvest everything dry would be a nightmare.”
Adjusting the sieves in his combine for the higher moisture crop, so that everything – including grain, chaff and weed seeds – ends up in the grain tank, means everything is crimped in the clamp.
“Because we are cutting for the clamp, everything tends to end up in the combine,” he explains. “The extra chaff is great for scratch factor and weeds have become less problematic.”
“This is a further attraction of crimp,” adds Michael. “ADAS trials have shown that grains treated and stored with the right salts-based crimping preservative [CrimpSafe 300 was used in the trials], are no longer viable for germination – and that applies to grass weed seeds just as it does to the cereal crop itself.”
Although this was demonstrated in the trials as a way of reducing blackgrass, Guy says it has reduced both brome and ryegrass on his farm.
The second ‘eureka moment’ came at Northfields with the introduction of wholecrop beans. The beans not only achieve spring cropping – an important part of the farm’s rotation – but provide a valuable break from cereals, also fixing nitrogen, improving soil structure and providing a source of protein in rations.
Like the crimp, the forage beans are consolidated firmly in the clamp where they’re sheeted and stored over winter using a chemical-based preservative, all of which ensures no aerobic spoilage, even after opening.
“I think the competition judges liked our spring cropping programme which also ties in with growing cover crops, [black oat, mustard and stubble turnip mix] in autumn,” says Guy. “This ensures the soil has a living cover at all times – and the cover crop provides nutrients as well as aeration through its deep roots, increasing biodiversity and improving the soil microbiome.”
Spraying off the crop in spring, the land is then tilled with a Mzuri strip-till drill, ensuring soil is scarcely disturbed and little carbon is released. If the crop sown is beans, it is said to provide an early harvest and an early entry into winter wheat and to be part of a ‘wonderful virtuous cycle’.
This cycle has seen soils regain their ‘spring’ and crops flourish, requiring less herbicide and insecticide, through working more thoughtfully with nature, and building strength and resilience into each plant.
A further attraction of the whole circular system has been a CO2 equivalent of just 24.76kg per kg deadweight produced, as identified in the farm’s Promar International/Dunbia carbon footprint report.
A key strength highlighted by the report was the farm’s use of home-grown feeds which were said to ‘typically hold a lower carbon footprint in comparison with purchased concentrate feed, which arrives with emissions from production and transportation’. Low mortality was also praised, while the farm’s 24-month calving also helps keep emissions down.
Further improvements are in train including raising grass silage quality, particularly through multi-cuts; improving dry cow management and colostrum quality; applying bacteria to the soil to enhance nitrogen availability and introducing precision farming techniques.
The upshot of farming more holistically and in greater harmony with nature than ever before, is not only improved sustainability, but better profitability and a greater satisfaction and confidence in the farming practices.
“It’s given me a little bit more self-confidence to push the message
about farm sustainability to groups interested in what we do,” says Guy, naming the Catterick YFC, Hinderwell Man’s Shed Group and Loftus Trade Reform Group amongst his visitors.
And while he acknowledges it has also improved profitability, he is reluctant to predict long-term prospects.
“I have no idea whether we can survive. It depends on the markets and their volatility, but I don’t think I can do much more,” he says.
Northfield and associated farm facts
- 405 hectares (1,000 acres) in three distinct blocks with arable and beef
- Suckler herd comprising 200 Stabaliser cows and 50 in-calf heifers
- Rearing and finishing moved from intensive dry cereals to moist feeds and forage
- Runner-up in inaugural BASF Rawcliffe Bridge Award for Sustainability
- Simple rations include silage, wholecrop beans and crimped cereals
- Crimping cereals has improved agronomy with flexibility and weed control
- Crimping cereals has helped drive more spring cropping and improve ground-cover
- All forages and crimped cereals preserved with Kelvin Cave Ltd products