Halving feed costs and improving feed efficiency are the benefits alkalage is bringing for a Lancashire beef faming family.
A feed that will finish beef cattle at half the cost of cereals, improve feed efficiency, reduce acidosis and produce meat with a superior flavour and eating quality seems almost too good to be true – but alkalage is delivering all of these.
Lancashire nutritionist Alan Sayle has been the driving force behind the use of alkalage in both dairy and beef diets.
Alkalage is made by using the whole crop which is then conserved using a protein source to create a balanced diet. In effect the additive cost is nil, says Mr Sayle. “The additive is providing £25 to £28 worth of protein at a cost of £25 to £28, depending on the season.
“Alkalage is a dry crop at 78 to 80% DM. There’s no fermentation, so no fermentation loss. Compared with other ensiled forages, alkalage retains a fifth more of the crop.”
A typical alkalage analysis is: dry matter 78 to 80%; energy 11 to 11.5 MJ/kg of DM; starch 35% DM; protein 15 to 16% DM (depending on pellet addition rate and underlying crop); pH >8.5. The crop contains no lactic acid.
Mr Sayle says feeding alkalage reduces acidosis, improves rumen function and digestion, reduces metabolic problems, enables better use to be made of home-grown feeds and improves feed efficiency.
And for a beef system Mr Sayle has been working with, they are aiming for a weight gain of about 150kg a head over approximately 100 days of being on the farm and fed alkalage.
“Weight gains are about 1.4-1.5kg a day. Because there’s a higher intake of dry matter there’s no acidity in the diet. The rumen is healthier and there’s a better use of the feed’s ingredients.
“A crop of alkalage will produce about six and-a-half tonnes of dry matter an acre compared with about four tonnes of dry matter from a crop of grain.”
And Mr Sayle says there’s a significant improvement in the eating quality of beef produced from an alkalage diet.
“The diet creates a high alkalinity in the blood so when the beast is slaughtered it produces a tenderness in the meat during the time it’s maturing.”
CASE STUDY: The Webster family, Lancashire
An alkalage-based diet is the key to producing top-quality finished beef cattle on the Webster family’s farm at Lathom in Lancashire – and beef-buying customers in their busy farm shop can’t get enough of it.
Roger Webster (pictured above) started feeding alkalage over 10 years ago and believes it’s the most cost-efficient way of providing a high quality finishing diet.
“Cattle perform well on it and it’s a healthy ration that we can start to feed ad-lib to bought-in stores as soon as they arrive on the farm with no problems of bloat, even though intakes are soon up to around 10kg a day of dry matter,” says Roger.
And there’s a further bonus of feeding the alkalage mix. “When we’ve had to buy-in finished cattle for the farm shop the customers immediately notice the difference in the flavour of the beef. The alkalage diet has a high pH and that’s carried through into the beef and helps to develop its true flavour during hanging.”
The family buys-in top quality store cattle all year round to maintain supplies to the farm shop. Ideally cattle – Limousin and British Blue crosses are preferred – are on the farm for about 100 days but because quality is the top priority it can mean buying cattle ranging from eight months to 16 months old. Bullocks are favoured but there are always some heifers in the finishing yards.
“We like to have cattle on the system for 100 days which is also the time it needs for the ph of the alkalage diet to do its job. By then we can be sure we have carcasses that will “hold the meat” and produce beef of a high eating quality and flavour.
“But we don’t have a specific slaughter weight. Cattle are slaughtered when we feel they’re ready. A recent batch ranged from just over 300kg to almost 400kg at slaughter,” says Roger.
From producing just 60t of alkalage in the first year, the Websters are now dedicating 50 acres of the farm’s total wheat crop of 160 acres to yield almost 350t of alkalage for the beef unit.
“I was combining wheat on the same day we were cutting wheat for alkalage. We do everything as if we were growing a conventional wheat crop but we have to be careful about which straw shortener we use. Moddus doesn’t affect the palatability whereas cattle don’t like the straw treated with chlormequat.
Ideally we need the crop to be under 18% moisture – if it gets over 20% we need to use more urea pellets. We’re also producing alka-wheat which is combined wheat that’s rolled and then treated with urea through mixing with Home n Dry pellets,” says Roger’s eldest son Andrew.
The newly harvested alkalage is dropped in the yard and urea pellets are applied using a fertiliser spreader. The two are mixed with the aim of achieving every urea pellet within four inches of each other. The mix is clamped and sheeted and ideally left for a month before feeding when it should produce the 10% protein base for the beef diet.”
“We have a two-end clamp with some alkalage always left from the previous season. That means we can continue feeding the older material and allow the latest alkalage a longer ensiling time,” says Andrew.
Although alkalage can be fed on its own with only minerals added, the Websters have been adding molasses, alka-wheat, alka-beans, hay and minerals. Next year the hay and molasses will be replaced with home-grown fodder beet.
“The biggest advantage of alkalage is that we can harvest it all in one day, we don’t have to dry it and we can feed it to cattle as soon as they come onto the farm. Urea isn’t cheap but using it to create alkalage is the most economical way of buying-in protein.”