GM taken off winter menu
By James Garner
WINTER feeding has a new flavour at one Hants beef farm where GM feed is now off the menu.
Much has been made of GM ingredients in animal feed, but as yet no major retailer has wholly committed itself to sourcing animals fed only non-GM feeds.
Despite this, David and Tina Pybus have taken the decision themselves, and all Aberdeen Angus cross steers at Pyesmead Farm, Plaitford, Romsey, will be offered GM-free rations this winter.
The decision has been prompted by the Pybuses belief that supermarkets may require some producers to feed animals with non-GM feeds.
Trying to stay one step ahead of retailers is the reason for changing diets, says Mr Pybus. "It is an insurance policy against the rules being changed, but we are not being paid any more to do it."
Previously at Pyesmead, cattle have been fed a diet consisting of equal quantities of sugar beet pulp and maize gluten. But this year, to ensure ingredients are non-GM, a switch has been made to a blend from KW Alternative Feeds, compromising 42.5% sugar beet pulp, 42.5% cracker feed – from Ryvita crackers and mainly whole rye – and 15% groundnut oil.
"Although the diet is described as GM free, there is no guarantee it is from non-GM stock," says Mr Pybus. But this is standard policy of feed companies, who are loath to commit themselves to guaranteeing GM-free status. This is potentially difficult, with risks from cross-contamination and contamination in mills, shipping and transport.
Contrary to perception, GM-free blends actually cost little more than conventional straights, working out at about £5/t more expensive, says Mr Pybus.
An equivalent conventional ration costs £100-£107/t, compared with the non-GM feeds cost of £112/t delivered and blown into store, says Signet consultant Ian Ross.
One concern about changing to non-GM ingredients is keeping the feeding system simple. The Pybuses did not want to have different feed for calves and finishing cattle, so a ration to suit both had to made.
It also had to fit into the system at Pyesmead Farm, which is set up to reduce the amount of purchased feed used and to make the most of grass, says Mr Ross.
July and August-born calves are bought and brought on to farm in September, then housed for winter on ad-lib silage and some hard feed. "Calves must have 2kg a day of feed. We aim to turn them out after the winter at 180kg, which means a growth rate of 0.8kg a day."
The cattles second winter is their store phase, says Mr Ross. "They want to be 350kg at turnout and need plenty of frame so when they are turned out compensatory growth means they grow really quickly." During the steers second winter they are fed ad lib silage with no straights at all. Turnout for finishing cattle is in April, about one month before the calves go out after their first winter on farm.
All cattle are sold through Wessex Quality Meats as part of an Aberdeen Angus scheme, and the Pybuses are keen to protect their premium market by taking tough decisions, such as feeding non-GM feed.
When the system works well and cattle hit the right specifications – R4L for conformation and finish – the Pybuses gain handsome premiums, but this requires good management.
The last batch of Aberdeen Angus cross steers sold achieved about 40p/kg more than the average market price, with a carcass weight of 278kg. "It is not like finishing Continental cattle. Regular weighings are needed to ensure cattle are selected at the right finish. But you dont want many cattle grading as R4H as these are penalised severely," says Mr Pybus.
But receiving a top price means being in control of the finishing phase, says Mr Ross. Good growth rates in the finishing phase help achieve the right shape of animal, but top class management and a system to match it are also required.
"We select finished cattle every three weeks and watch them like a hawk in between. I think about 60% meet the target grades," says Mr Pybus. *
• Not guaranteed as GM free.
• Straights are good value.
• Simple feeding system.