It’s easy to fall into the trap of doing things as they’ve always been done and overlooking how they could be improved.
This was the case on Plas Onn Farm near Welshpool in Powys, where father and son team, Martyn and Gruff Jones, admit they reared their beef in a similar way to their father and grandfather before them. This meant buying in weaned dairy x beef calves and selling most of them at around 18 months as strong stores. A group would also be kept until they were finished, often leaving the farm at up to 36 months, with killing out weights of over 400kg.
Stock were fed on a traditional ration including dry rolled corn which was grown on the farm and mostly handled in bags. Although performance was reasonably good and the enterprise made a margin, feed conversion efficiency inevitably tailed off as the stock aged. Rubbing salt into the wound was the gluten intolerance experienced by both Martyn and Gruff, who would be “bad for a week” after milling and mixing. And with some stock remaining on the farm for over two years, the cattle had to be kept in two batches by age, making extra work for the family team.
And then they saw the light!
By switching from dry rolled to moist crimped grain and buying a small, second-hand mixer wagon, both the ration and the system could be transformed. Grass silage also had the potential for improvement by taking an earlier cut, improving its preservation, and increasing its energy, protein and intake characteristics. As a result, a far higher quality ration could be fed whose palatability and high moisture would drive up dry matter intakes. And since crimped cereals are safer to feed than dry rolled corn, performance had significant scope to improve.
Reaching this position did not take long after the team’s first introduction to Kelvin Cave Ltd.
Martyn says: “We decided to try crimping as we’d heard of local people who’d done it successfully, so we tried just 10 acres in the first year.
“We bought the preservative, CrimpSafe 300, and a crimper – a Murska 350 – from Kelvin Cave Ltd. We shared the crimper with my cousin and made a small, temporary clamp out of two concrete panels for that first year.
“We liked how it went – we found harvesting moist grain was easier, although it required different settings on the combine. But our
contractor, David Evans, has a good understanding and was prepared to set things up properly.”
Aiming for a moisture content of 35-40%, there was a far wider window for harvest than with dry grain.
He says: “We find that as long as the dew has gone from the crop and you can walk through it with dry feet, you should be able to combine.
“We also gained an extra tonne to the acre, which is a big bonus,” he adds.
Explaining higher yields
Andy Strzelecki, technical director for Kelvin Cave Ltd, explains the better yields are seen on a dry matter as well as a fresh weight basis.
“These are partly, but not entirely, due to the extra moisture,” he says. “There’s a further bonus to come from less senescence and disease in the younger crop, which is harvested at its optimal nutritional value.
“Added to this are lower losses of the moist grain during harvest, which not only helps keep yields up but avoids volunteer barley the following year,” he says.
This was exactly the experience of the Jones family who had no hesitation in making crimped barley a permanent feature of their crop rotation.
They’d been encouraged by Andy to purchase the mixer wagon and improve the quality of their grass silage too, as he believed that with newly compiled rations, Martyn would be able to transform the performance of his stock.
“I felt they’d be able to take all cattle to finish using mostly home-grown feed, while retaining the option of selling stores if the market was right,” says Andy.
The family followed his advice to the letter, building two permanent clamps for the 2020 harvest, increasing their barley ground to 20 acres and setting themselves up to rear and finish more cattle through the following winter.
In fact, it was the performance of stock which truly cemented the position of crimp on the farm, which has transformed the success of the beef business.
Martyn says: “We found the rations containing crimp (see panel at end of this field study) gave a lift in dry matter intakes, a massive increase in growth rates and better contentment in the cattle.”
“We’ve never seen the cattle so happy,” adds Gruff. “Before, they were far more fidgety but this winter, they’ve been lying quietly, chewing the cud, and when you add fresh feed, some of them don’t even get up.”
All of this is reflected in performance, with average weights at turnout this spring of 430kg.
“That’s closer to their weights at the end of summer in previous years, and means they’re easily six months ahead compared with the old system,” he says.
“This is our first year on the full system but it means we hope to finish a third before winter, to have only one year’s intake housed and everything gone by January, so clearing the shed for lambing,” adds Martyn.
“But the biggest thing of all has been seeing deadweights come through at around 300kg,” he says. “This is down from 400kg, but at about half their previous age.
“We may still sell stores to capitalise on ‘green fever’, but now we don’t have to do so. If we had relied on this and gone down with TB, as we did 10 years ago, we would have been stuffed,” he says.
Further benefits he’s witnessed include the flexibility of the crop, which was demonstrated last season when patches of winter wheat were lost through waterlogging, but could be reseeded with spring barley.
“The winter wheat and spring barley could be harvested together without any detriment to the crimp,” he says. “If we’d been producing dry grain we would have had to use sprays to deal with the uneven ripening.”
Better quality straw is said to be softer and more palatable, suitable for both bedding and feed. And other agronomic benefits include earlier autumn cultivations and drilling before the winter sets in.
Space for a catch crop
“We’ve been able to harvest winter barley in the first week of July, winter wheat at the end of July and spring barley in early August,” says Martyn. “We think we might even be able to get in a crop of forage such as kale or rape for the lambs after the winter barley, and still get our winter wheat drilled.”
With shallow soils and an altitude of up to 600 feet, this would be an impressive achievement on a partly unploughable, marginal cereal farm.
Although they have not yet calculated the beef enterprise’s annual profits, Martyn and Gruff have no doubt they’re significantly higher than in previous years.
This has come not only through better individual performance but by increasing the annual throughput from 40 to 70 head and potentially more, and increasing the acreage of crimp to 45 this year.
Reflecting on the system the family are delighted they’ve made the switch which has not only transformed the business but also the lives of Martyn and Gruff who no longer breathe in allergens from dry grain.
“Andy has helped us revolutionise the beef side of our business,” says Martyn. “It was working before but it was only just working.
Grass silage on Plas Onn Farm
Despite putting reasonable grass into the pit, the team at Plas Onn has always struggled to achieve good silage preservation.
Martyn says: “We’d put in reasonable quality grass but it would not stay stable and would often have patches of mould and heat up if not used quickly.”
Describing its palatability as ‘average’, he says this was despite trying numerous silage additives over many years, including a range of bacterial inoculants.
Always opting for one main cut, he says second cut was a gamble on a relatively dry farm whose thin soils have poor water retention.
“Relying on a second cut can put our winter forage stocks at risk and put pressure on autumn grazing,” he explains.
However, under the guidance of Andy Strzelecki from Kelvin Cave Ltd, he made the switch to an earlier first cut and using the preservative Safesil Challenge. This would quickly stabilise the forage, cut mould and waste and slash dry matter losses.
Martyn says: “A friend had used Safesil years ago and couldn’t get over the difference. The cost had put me off but I have to put my hands up – it’s amazing!”
Also moving first cut slightly forward to 10th June and planning a small second cut, he says: “It’s such a step up. It’s clearly very palatable and the cattle are happier with the high silage quality and their mixer wagon diet, and we have no waste at all.”
The new rations at Plas Onn
(all based on freshweights and fed ad lib)
Grass silage 56.6%
Crimped barley 25.3%
Crimped wheat 9.7%
Live yeast, minerals, limestone granules
ME 11.75MJ/kg DM, CP 15.9%, starch 27.5%
Grass silage 50.6%
Crimped barley 31.5%
Crimped wheat 13.0%
Live yeast, minerals, limestone granules
ME 11.9MJ/kg DM, CP 14.7%, starch 34.0%
Plas Onn farm facts
• 300 acre mixed sheep (450 ewes), beef and arable
farm, owned and rented, north of Welshpool
• Historically reared 40 beef/year, bought as
weanling steers, sold fat (36 months) or as strong
stores (18 months)
• Ration switched from dry rolled grain to moist
crimped grain and improved silage
• Increased steers to 70/year, with plans for more,
now finished on average aged 16 months
• Trialled 10ac of crimped barley in 2019, increased
to 20acres in 2020 and 45acres in 2021
• Cattle numbers still increasing, with flexibility to
sell fat or as stores when the market is high