11 February 2000

BIG BALE KALE HELPS BREAK-EVEN IN BEEF

ONE Norfolk farm recently changed calving dates from autumn to spring, cut cow numbers, reduced labour, increased reliance on home-grown forage and adopted new finishing systems, which should mean the beef unit now breaks even.

Five years ago David Perowne of Top Farm, Great Snoring, Fakenham had 75 suckler cows. But with BSE and a collapse in prices, employing one full-time stockman was no longer viable. "Whatever we made from cattle just covered the stockmans wages."

Now there are 56 Simmental cross cows running on 40ha (100 acres) of permanent pasture, 27ha (67 acres) of which is governed by Countryside Stewardship scheme rules, with a further 4ha (9 acres) of pasture from arable reversion.

But cutting cow numbers and increasing the forage area to 72ha (178 acres) from 52ha (128 acres), means the Perownes can now claim super-extensification payments. They now run a straightforward system that fits in with the 460ha (1135-acre) arable unit and 14,200 free-range chickens.

Part of the simple system revolves around a winter feeding regime that cuts labour. For cows it is based around feeding big bale kale silage as the staple forage.

Cost-effective

It is not a cheap alternative, but in terms of yield and feed value, David says it is as cost-effective as grass silage. "It is fairly expensive to make at £100/ha, but it yields well."

This year kale yielded 19-25t/ha (8-10t/acre), with an analysis of 12.3ME, and a digestibility of 77%. Each 1m (3.5ft) bale weighs 900kg, and is net-wrapped six times to keep stalks tight in the bale.

In the past few years, the Perownes have learned a few tricks in making good big bale kale silage. "We cut kale earlier, in early to mid September after sugar beet is lifted and before drilling seed wheat.

"It needs three dry days to wilt after cutting, and the knack is to have as little stalk as possible but enough for the baler to pick up.

"Once wrapped and treated with an inoculant, we can begin feeding it eight weeks later," says David.

As big bales it is easy to feed and reduces labour, as well as cutting other requirements. "We have not fed concentrate to cows for the past three years." Instead they have access to big bale kale silage, grass silage, pea straw, fodder beet or sugar beet – depending on their relative prices – and a suckler cow lick.

Most of these products can be fed using a forklift, which is less labour intensive and fits in with available labour, including a part-time stockman. "The other men do a bit more, but most jobs are bulk feeding," he says.

Calves weaned

Before cows are housed in October, their six-month-old calves are weaned, weighing about 290kg liveweight. Now that herd policy is to finish all stock, steers come indoors on to a barley-based diet. Heifers are finished at 18 months old off grass in their second autumn, having been store fed on big bale silage during the previous winter.

A priority for the finishing unit is to ensure the feeding system remains uncomplicated. Once steers have been housed for a couple of weeks they are moved from forage to a barley and 15% crude protein mix, which is built up until it is offered ad lib from hoppers.

Finished cattle are sold through Dawkins, which supplies Marks and Spencers, with steers averaging 260-270kg carcass weight. That means cattle must be fed a GM-free ration, which is easy for cows, but a little bit more awkward for finishing cattle, says David. &#42

David Perowne, and father Jim, right, keep winter feeding for beef cows simple by basing it around big bale kale silage, other forages and no concentrates.

BIG BALE KALE

&#8226 Good quality silage.

&#8226 Its palatable.

&#8226 High energy value.