Brassica crops hold the key to slashing costs in a Cumbria suckler herd by providing enough “fresh green feed” to enable the herd to be out-wintered.

Feeding kale, as well as a new kale-rape hybrid, has enabled winter feed costs to be cut by almost 50%, as well as triggering further savings on labour and housing.

In previous years part of the herd run at Scratchmere Scar, Plumpton, Penrith has been strip-grazed on stubble turnips. But father-and-son team Brian and Brendan Atkinson, who are under way with major changes to the management of their sucklers, have now switched to kale and the new hybrid as part of their plan to out-winter the entire herd next winter.

And with out-wintered cows currently costing £2.24/head a week to feed – compared with £4.34 for housed cattle – the success of the first season on the new brassica regime means the area will be increased to about 28.32ha (70 acres) to feed 200 sucklers next winter.

There are currently 320 cows – plus finishing cattle and herd replacements – on the farm, but the out-wintering system is a key element in plans to cut cow numbers to 200 and to buy-in more weaned calves for indoor finishing.

The 4ha (10 acres) of kale (Maris Kestrel) were sown after first-cut silage in early June, followed by 8ha (20 acres) of the kale-rape hybrid (Swift) which went in after spring-sown whole-crop barley was harvested in late July.

“We’ve been impressed with the Swift kale-hybrid. It’s cropped well at about 8t/ha of dry matter and growing it fits in by following the spring sown barley whole-crop,” says Brian Atkinson.

Kale Atkinson

Two groups of about 40 cows started strip-grazing the brassica crops in November the fence is moved up about a yard each day and cows have access to straw in ring feeders. As a rough guide, about 10ha (24 acres) of brassicas should feed 100 cows for 120 days.

“Cows are looking well off both crops. They are healthy and holding their condition on a system that is costing less in feed terms, as well as freeing-up buildings for finishing cattle.

“The amount of money a suckler cow now can generate without any subsidy means the cost of maintaining her has to be pared back. We’ve got plenty of cattle accommodation on the farm but we believe that, instead of using it to in-winter cows, we can put it to more profitable use finishing cattle.”

Outwintering sucklers

  • Halved cow costs
  • Freeing up finishing space
  • Healthier cows outside