It cost over £220/cow to carry them through the winter in 2017/2018. This was due mainly to an extra-long winter period. We started feeding cows in mid-September and didn’t manage to get back to grass until early May due to the late spring. Compare this to last winter, when we only housed cows in late-October and managed to hold the fittest batch out on forage crops until January and the cost of winter almost halved.
Obviously, last winter the weather was on our side which was key. However, we see this as the model we need to replicate to make the cows pay. Bedding cows for 180 days or more on straw is not a profitable exercise.
For us, having a significant arable component to the business, growing forage crops provides a simple solution. We are also looking to bring more of the arable ground into rotation to boost fertility and increase the organic matter levels on farm – a win-win scenario.
In mid-May, around 16 ac of beet was sown. This is our first time growing beet at Arnage. There are plenty of farms around us doing so quite successfully and we are hopeful we will do likewise. Beet is quite expensive to grow, but given the yield potential, we are giving it every chance this year.
It is currently up in row and looking quite good. This recent warm spell has boosted growth and there is plenty of moisture in the ground so it has everything it requires. The grazing plan for this is to have replacement heifers grazing from one end of the field, with ewes grazing from the other, both with access to a grass lie-back.
Cows and calves at grass.
Keeping the ewes off the grass parks throughout winter is really important in order to have a fresh bite of grass in early spring when needed. Grass demand spikes here in mid- to late April as ewes lamb and cows and calves get to grass.
There is some of the land here not fit for the combine, due to the steepness and rockiness of the ground. However, we still want to refresh the grass on this part of the farm over the coming seasons as some of it has been down for over 30 years.
One such field has been identified for reseeding this year. Due to decent grass growth in the last few weeks, this field has gone ahead of the cows and calves for grazing. The plan is now to cut and bale this 11ac field and direct drill in a hybrid brassica crop into the silage stubbles. This will allow us to carry cows outside once the grazing season comes to an end.
From the silage made in the field we will simply make a line of bales on both sides, the full length of the field with a few metres in between each bale. We will then feed these bales as we strip graze the crop. This will save a double handling of bales, spreads any damage out over a greater area and means there is no need for a tractor to go into the field during periods of poor ground conditions in winter.
This field will then be reseeded to grass next spring. We will also establish another 30ac of forage crops into winter barley stubble post-harvest.
The cows and calves have good grass at their feet at the moment. Rotational grazing has played a significant role in maintaining quality ahead of stock. This should bode well for the breeding season. Bulls are out with the cows and there seems to be plenty of bulling activity.
We purchased a new Simmental bull earlier in the year, Dunmore Iceman. He has been with a group of cows for over a month and we have now swapped him out as we do not want to overburden him in this first year.
Dunmore Iceman, the new Simmental bull purchased this spring.
A group of 24 replacement heifers are running with a Stabiliser bull. We introduced the Stabiliser last year on the farm. We have traditionally been Sim/Lim breeding here at Arnage and felt bringing a third breed into the mix would help with hybrid vigour. We also want to breed a smaller cow that – come the end of the grazing season – has sufficient condition to carry her through the winter, while being able to wean a calf 50% of her body weight.
Moving the lambing back until April seems to be working well. As we operate an outdoor lambing system, weather and grass availability is critical. We enjoyed a decent lambing period and lambs are thriving well.
The lambs are really clean, they are grazing a new ley which really helps reduce worm burden. This is now part of the crop rotation. New grass is grazed by the sheep in year one, followed by two years of silage and one or two years of cattle grazing before returning to crop.
Ewes and lambs on a four-paddock rotation.
Weaning will take place later in the month once the lambs are on average 100-days-old, the lambs will remain on the grazing rotation while the ewes will go to tighter pasture for a few weeks.
We will cull the last of the Suffolk ewes this year as this is their fifth crop of lambs. It will mean we need to bring in 80 replacements. While most will be bought-in Mules, we plan to retain the best of the Suffolk ewe lambs from Mule ewes.
The Biffens at Arnage have identified the housed winter period for cattle as a key barrier to profitability. In order to overcome this, they are exploring new methods to both shorten the length and reduce the cost of winter.
Forage crops will play a significant role in achieving this again this year. While bumper silage crops are being reported across the country, and straw yields look set to be substantial, farmers should not let this deter them from out-wintering cattle this year where possible.
Matthew Biffen speaks to programme adviser Robert Gilchrist.
Over 75% of variable costs on beef farms consist of feed costs. Anything we can do to reduce this will have a significant impact on the bottom line. Farmers should be constantly trying to minimise how much they get in between livestock and their feed. Every time you do, you are adding cost.
For the Biffens the opportunity arises once winter barley is harvested. All going well, this should be early August this year. This provides ample time to establish a forage crop with decent yield potential.
While it may be impossible to replace the housed winter period on some farms, using forage crops to shorten the length is definitely an option – typically from late October onwards. Being able to hold cows outside until just before Christmas would be a game changer for many farms.
The Biffens will host a farm walk for the public in early August to showcase different methods of establishment for forage crops, as well as an overview of the farm systems in place. The date for the event will be announced here later this month depending on the expected date of harvest.