In order secure a future for the 70-cow beef suckler enterprise
that he runs alongside 500 breeding ewes at 115ha (285acre) West
Highwood, near Barnard Castle, Tony Wilson knows he must reduce
costs and, if possible, manage with less labour.
Tony is among a growing number of north farmers who realise that
out-wintering using a brassica based system is one possible solution,
and an initial experiment with 20 spring calving dry cows on a
small area of kale in 2006 started to show what could be achieved.
As a result, Tony, a tenant of the Raby Estates, has extended
his brassica area for 2007 and adapted his approach, and has now
set his sights on keeping all his cows outdoors all year round.
“The ultimate aim must be to avoid the need to house the
cows at all,” he said. “We estimate that it costs between £5.50
and £6.00 per cow per week to feed the herd inside, and then
there is the added cost of bedding straw and of carting and spreading
“The cost of growing a crop of kale that will feed the cows
for 120 days is just a fraction of this, and – even with
moving the feed fence every day – I believe the out-wintering
system requires less labour overall.”
Most of the Limousin x Belgian Blue cows calve in May and June,
to a Blonde bull, and calves are weaned at the end of November
and come inside. Bulls are kept entire and are reared to finish
at around 650kg liveweight at 17-18 months, and heifers are finished
at 21-23 months.
The aim is to bring calving forward to around April, calving all
cattle outside, therefore allowing the calves longer on the cows
before weaning. All the dry cows would then be out-wintered on
an area of 16–18 acres of kale.
For this year, the kale area is just over 8 acres, which Tony
estimates to be sufficient for 30 cows for 120 days. He’s
switched from a taller variety to the semi-dwarf Maris Kestrel,
for the superior leaf size and leaf-to-stem ratio, and expects
this to be easier to strip graze.
The field is sloping and relatively free-draining, with it being
strip grazed from the top down. A grass run-back area has been
left at the top and straw bales will be placed in the crop in advance
to provide the required source of fibre that will complement the
highly digestible kale.
The crop was drilled in June following first cut silage and will
be followed by a spring-drilled crop of triticale and lupins grown
for wholecrop silage (to winter-feed growing cattle). This will
in turn be followed by a fast growing brassica crop (the rape/kale
hybrid Swift), which is being grazed by breeding ewes in December
and January and followed by a spring grass and clover reseed.
Helen Mathieu of British Seed Houses, said: “We estimate
kale grown under a full cultivation regime with the required level
of fertiliser and agrochemicals to work out at around £1.30/cow/week.
“This means that Tony’s 3ha area will save him around £4
per cow per week over the winter, in feed costs alone, even with
an allowance for the straw fed alongside the kale, and he’s
expecting reduced labour and healthier cows as well.”
Father and son Brendan and Brian Atkinson have taken a serious
strategic look at their beef production system since decoupling
and they are using a combination of out-wintering and conversion
to Stabilisers to keep their suckler production viable.
Having at one stage kept as many as 500 suckler cows at 600 acre
Scratchmere Scar, near Penrith, they have reduced numbers to 300
and will continue to down-scale to a target of 200 cows.
In conjunction with this, the aims are to virtually eliminate
all concentrate feeding - even in the finishing of all home-reared
cattle – and reduce the overall cost by keeping the cows
outdoors all year round adopting a brassica based system.
Scratchmere Scar has a good range of buildings, having been run
as a dairy farm until 1997, and also has the potential to grow
a lot of forage, either as grass, wholecrop, or brassica fodder
“We have slatted accommodation for 1,000 cattle, so we will
continue to buy in weaned calves and rear them on a total mixed
ration system,” said Brian.
“The aim with the sucklers is to use our rough pasture for
grazing during the summer months, and supplement this with brassicas
such as kale and other faster growing rape/kale hybrids during
the winter months. We believe we can run a herd of 200 cows on
this basis, without the need for them to come inside at any stage.”
The spring-calving herd has been Limousin x Belgian Blue, but
the introduction of Stabilisers as the Atkinsons believe the cattle
are better suited to out-wintering and can be run successfully
on a forage-only diet.
“We are already seeing a reduction in our concentrates usage,
and our aim is to grade up to a self-contained Stabiliser herd,
breeding our own replacements and with the cows being kept outside
all year round,” said Brian.
Brassicas for out-wintering will fit into the farm’s rotation
policy, alongside spring barley grown for wholecrop silage and
“We would drill kale in June following a first cut of silage,
and/or a fast growing crop such as the rape/kale hybrid Swift after
harvesting wholecrop at the end of July, so there is flexibility
in the rotation and we are not relying on a single crop and a single
sowing window,” added Brian. “The brassicas will typically
be followed by a grass reseed in the spring, or could provide the
platform for the spring cereal. “
For this year, a total of 10 ha (25 acres) of brassicas have been
drilled at Scratchmere Scar, with a view to providing grazing for
70 cows for a period of 120 days. This is made up of a 4 ha (10
acre) field of Maris Kestrel kale and 6 ha (15 acres) of Swift.
Supplemented with a fibre source of straw, this is estimated to
be costing around 25 – 30p/cow/day, which is under half of
the cost of feeding the cows were they to be housed and fed a conserved
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