Somerset farmer, Keith Barrow, has changed the way he feeds his cattle and has reduced costs, improved nutrition and opened opportunities elsewhere on the farm.
Beef and sheep producer, Keith Barrow (pictured), believes a revolution is coming in the way we feed grain to our livestock and fails to understand why the system he is using on his West Somerset farm has not taken hold across the farming industry.
Farming at Higher Halsey Cross Farm in Nether Stowey on the fringes of the Quantock Hills, Mr Barrow and his sons, James and George, have transformed production on their family unit to accommodate over 800 head of cattle and 550 ewes – and still leave surplus land available for rent by a local biogas plant.
Always keen to make every acre work hard for the business and feed his stock as far as possible on home-grown feeds, he says a key ingredient of the cattle rations is moist crimped grain.
Having fed dried grain for many years and contemplated the cost of a new grain store and dryer as the business grew, he knew he’d have little change from £100,000.
“I could find a decent second-hand grain dryer for £26,000 and the grain store would have cost £60,000 but that seemed to me to be an awful lot of money,” he says. “I could build a new livestock shed for less than that.”
Stock at Higher Halsey Cross Farm are reared and finished on crimped wheat
In search of alternatives, he says he stumbled across ‘a product that suited us perfectly’ at the Royal Welsh Show.
“It was on the Kelvin Cave stand in 2012 where I first saw crimped grain, and realised that, with the right preservative, we could store it like silage – even outside in a clamp in the yard,” he says.
Giving the system a go at the earliest opportunity, he says they built a long and narrow clamp from large straw bales within the existing silage shed in the first year.
Cereal harvest was brought forward to begin on 10 July when the farm’s contractor was delighted to have the work ahead of his peak demand and the flexibility offered by harvesting higher moisture grain.
“We found that between 30 and 33 per cent moisture the grain ran through the combine and the roller brilliantly, and allowed us to build a perfect clamp,” he says. “We find we prefer to work with it at under 35 per cent for its better handling.”
Continuing this system and increasing the crimped grain acreage every year since, he says: “The contractor now comes to us before everyone else and can combine all day – even when it’s raining. Before that he could only harvest between about 12 noon and 7pm which wasn’t fair on him and was a slow process for us.”
Just as important as the timing was the quantity and quality of grain which increased from around 3.5t/acre (8.7t/ha) at 14 per cent moisture to 4.5 to 5t/acre (11-12t/ha) at 30 per cent moisture.
“Some, but not all, of the extra yield is obviously explained by the added moisture but you are harvesting a cleaner crop with fewer losses from disease at this earlier time which also gives a higher dry matter yield per hectare,” says David Warner, Kelvin Cave’s southern area manager. “The nutritional value before the crop fully ripens is also at its peak and the fibre is more digestible.”
“When you look at these figures, crimp looks really attractive on a cost basis, as our overall costs are similar whether we’re harvesting 3.5 or 5 tonnes/acre,” adds Mr Barrow.
The only equipment required for the crimping process was a bruiser or roller for breaking the grain surface, which was already on the farm, having previously been used for rolling dry grain.
“However, we decided to upgrade to a Korte 1000HD which we purchased in partnership with a neighbour,” says Mr Barrow. “He uses it throughout the year to roll cereals for his dairy cows and we use it for just three or four days in the summer. It’s a fantastic bit of equipment and really does what it says on the tin, and will crimp really well all day.”
Meanwhile, the rations for the cattle were adjusted to make use of the crimp which today is included at up to 12kg/head/day (see boxes).
Leading beef nutritionist, David Hendy compiles the farm’s rations and explains: “Crimp is excellent from a nutritional perspective as it is safer for the rumen and more digestible than dry rolled grain so I am happy to include it at these levels. It also gives us the opportunity to make sure the cattle are finished at a younger age and therefore carcasses don’t go overweight.”
Mr Barrow concurs and adds: “We have no bloat problems at all and we don’t get acidosis.”
On these rations, the uncastrated beef-cross bulls – originating from the dairy herd – have typically finished at 15-16 months, mostly (70 per cent) grading R, with 20 per cent U, five per cent E and five per cent O+. Almost all have a fat class of three and deadweights range between 340 and 370kg.
A further benefit to the whole system has come through the introduction of Safesil to preserve the grass and maize silage and allowed much more flexibility for the team at feed-out.
“I switched to this product on the recommendation of David Warner as our clamps are open 52 weeks a year and we wanted to avoid the losses we knew we were getting through heating,” says Mr Barrow.
“Since we made the switch, we have wasted virtually nothing, and the feed remains stone cold at both the clamp face and in the trough,” he adds.
This has allowed the team to feed a full mixer wagon at a time, with feed lasting well and remaining completely cold for the 36 hours it stays in the trough.
“This optimises our running costs and our use of labour and allows us to put out feed every day and a half,” he says. “On day one we feed in the morning; on day two we feed in the evening; and then every third day we don’t need to put out feed at all. By the following morning the cattle have cleaned up every last scrap, with no wastage at all.
“We constantly look at the business and continually try to improve performance and it’s small changes like this which add up to a big difference,” he says.
In this respect the crimping has had the biggest impact of all as in addition to its cost and nutritional benefits it has brought further knock-on gains.
“When we combine in July we get a fantastic crop of straw which we can sell at a premium for animal feed,” he says. “Weed and disease control is improved and autumn cultivations also start early. As soon as harvest is complete in July, digestate [from the biogas plant] goes on to the land, and we do one pass with the drill into the stubble and sow Italian ryegrass.
“This will be ready to graze in the first week of September allowing a crop of store lambs to be brought in for finishing,” he says.
“It’s no good looking at just one thing – you have to consider the bolt-ons in farming and these have all contributed to our healthy margins from livestock,” he says.
With three generations now on the farm – including parents, Raymond and Freda – and his two sons always looking for growth opportunities, he says they have to keep expanding and will soon reach 1,000 head of cattle.
Today, he says the family are firmly committed to crimping grain and no longer harvest any dry cereals; they have put down a purpose-built concrete base at a cost of £4,000 and will bring in self-standing concrete walls to allow for a robust and bigger clamp, although he prefers to keep this under the roof of his grass silage clamp to avoid exposure to the elements on a wet and windy, north-facing site.
“I really can’t understand why crimp is not more popular as it ticks all the boxes,” says Mr Barrow. “When you do the costings, it is such an obvious answer.
“Years ago, people used to make hay all of the time and it was unusual to make silage. Now it’s the norm to make silage and odd to make hay. I think when people latch on, it will eventually become the norm to crimp grain and we’ll see far less dry grain used as a livestock feed.”
For information on grain crimping see What is grain crimping