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“The Busy Fool?”

Date Added: 07/04/2017

By Richard Elsdon, Technical Consultant, United Oilseeds

I first heard this term from an estate manager with whom I was discussing the pros and cons of growing a particular crop.  After a detailed discussion of the cost of the inputs and labour needed and the expected return, his conclusion was that he and his staff would be overworked but at the end of the day he would only end up in a break even position.  It was here he made the comment that by growing the crop he would be a “busy fool”.

This comment lodged in my memory and came back to me when I began to think about parts of the livestock industry, in particular producing calves from suckler cows.

A suckler herd is inherently inefficient. You only need to look at any set of costings to see the truth of that statement. Taking the AHDB beef and lamb Stocktake figures as an example you will see that the average producer has a gross margin of £327 per cow. The output side of the equation is fixed, one calf per cow, per year, at best. This leaves a consideration of input costs as the only area where economies can be made

Any quick examination of expenditure will show that the winter is the expensive time of year. The cow will be in a building consuming expensive hay or silage and needing a daily allowance of bedding, usually straw. Then at the end of the winter the building will need to be cleaned out and the manure probably stacked on a field headland before being spread. All of these operations demand labour and machinery and have a large cost attached to them.

Is there an alternative? If the farm has heavy land and is in a high rainfall area then livestock must be housed to avoid serious damage to grass and soil. However, where the soil is freer-draining, growers should consider out wintering options. Of course, these options require careful planning.

Out wintering can be based on grass or a forage crop. The most common forage crops tend to be kale or stubble turnips. In both cases, the soil should be at or near pH 6.5 and not have grown brassicas too often to avoid club root. This disease is best avoided but can, to some extent, be worked around by the use of a club root resistant variety of kale. This may not suit all farmers however, as kale needs to be sown in late spring and as such ties up a field for a whole season.

Growers looking for a little more flexibility should consider deferred grazing. This involves growing a one year ley, usually a mixture of Westerwolds and Italian ryegrass. Each part of the mix being made up of some diploid and some tetraploid grass as this ley must provide two (sometimes three) large cuts of silage and grazing. The mixture would be sown in the spring with the appropriate amount of potash and phosphate to get it off to a good start. Once it has started to produce true leaves, it needs to be fertilised for the first cut of silage. This will be carted off for feeding to other livestock.

The next stage is to fertilise the ley for a second cut. This will be made into big bales, wrapped and left in the field. The final application of fertiliser is then applied to produce leafy grass, to be consumed from September onwards.

Once the suckler cows have eaten the last of the grass on the summer pasture they are then moved to the deferred grazing. This is strip grazed with the electric fence moved daily. Each time the fence is moved the cows have access to more bales of silage fed via a ring feeder. As the cows move down the field they are followed by the ring feeder moved to surround the next bale of silage. In this way the cows have access to fresh grass and silage until late winter.  After this point the electric fence is still moved across the field to give the cows access to more bales of silage.

The great attractions of this system are a reduced requirement for silage, no machinery is needed, there is no bedding cost, and there are no costs associated with cleaning out buildings. All of this adds up to a considerable cost saving, estimated at 50% of that involved in housing the suckler cow.  Finally but perhaps just as significantly, the health of the cow will be maintained, or in some cases improved.

Is this a new idea? Absolutely not, just a small modification of what the Hosier family did on the downs in the 1930s.  After all, who wants to be a “busy fool?”

Grass seed for short, medium and long term lays is available from Hubbards Seeds via your local United Oilseeds Area Manager or by calling 01476 593 195.

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