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Article courtesy of ACP Media. (Farm Trader)
Agricultural economics may dictate that farms become larger to remain viable, but there are many smaller, family-run units where there is a genuine determination to retain what is considered to be the real value - a life style.
Occasionally, just occasionally, a piece of equipment is purchased that has a dramatic impact on the overall policy of the farm – a machine that is relatively innocuous in its design and action but nonetheless enables new thinking to be instilled into the running of the overall farming business.
And that’s exactly how it was when the new mixer wagon arrived at Sheepcote Hill Farm at Upper Winchendon, Aylesbury, Bucks, where Charlie Beaman runs a beef and sheep fattening enterprise.
“It was strange,” he comments. “I hadn’t realised just how much impact a new mixer wagon would have on the running of the farm or, for that matter, how much it would alter the way I had planned the farm to progress in the future.”
Powerful stuff, which clearly needs some explanation: Sheepcote Farm comprises 109ha, and has been in the Beaman family for a number of generations, Mr Beaman’s grandfather taking on the unit in 1931.
Despite being in a region where cereal cropping is fairly commonplace, the entire farmed area has been down to permanent pasture for decades, although he believes his grandfather may have ploughed the occasional field for a crop of barley during the 1960s. Even more remarkable, the land has never received any type of fertiliser other than by way of dressings of farmyard manure.
The main source of farm income is a beef fattening enterprise. Calves are bought at a few weeks old and then reared on the bucket before being weaned, brought on as stores and then fattened.
“Last year I concentrated on building up the volume of beef animals. There are now nearly 300 head of cattle at various ages,” adds Mr Beaman, who also runs a flock of 450 breeding ewes, which lamb in early March. These are mainly Welsh Mules, which are crossed with a Charolais or Suffolk ram.
Mr Beaman would be the first to admit that, when it comes to the buildings and yards, his farm is not particularly well endowed. This situation is compounded further by the recent expansion in herd numbers that has resulted in his shed capacity being pushed to the limit.
Even so, with generous use of straw bedding, the cattle still appear to be performing satisfactorily and, in years to come, there may be some additional cash available to pour a few yards of concrete.
Last winter the stock was fed silage plus a cereal mix. The silage was presented to them as a bale in a feeder, while the cereals were fed separately in troughs. “There was a lot of waste as the cattle pulled out the silage and let every other mouthful fall on to the ground,” explains Mr Beaman. “And though they appeared to be eating well, they seemed far from content within themselves. It was clearly time to reassess the whole situation.”
With cashflow being taxed by the added investment in extra stock – and the cost of providing feed for them – chances of any major improvement in the feeding system appeared to be slim indeed. But there was some hope in the form of a scheme being offered by mixer wagon maker Keenan.
The Irish firm’s Blue Chip scheme allowed for one of its feeder wagons to be rented for up to six months after which there was a choice of purchasing it at a cost less the amount paid out in rent or simply returning it. Included in the package was nutritional advice for the stock being fed.
“Under the prevailing circumstances, it seemed a sensible idea and one that I considered at length,” says Mr Beaman. “I reasoned that there was very little to lose – other than the rent – and if Keenan’s claims for an improved performance were to be believed, then there could be something to gain.”
He opted for a Klassik 100 model – a 10m³ mixer – complete with a bale chopper unit, the latter comprising a top-mount cradle on to which a big bale is placed for processing. As the mixer’s paddles turn beneath, they gradually dissect the rolled-up material by pushing sections of the bale across a fixed knife. “I have to say, I was a bit sceptical about the whole concept,” he insists.
“We had been feeding cattle in the same way for decades, and this was a dramatic break with tradition. But I also realised that if there was any chance of making a success of the business I needed to explore all of the different systems of production.”
Mr Beaman also specified a high-level feed delivery version of the wagon – a variant which, through the addition of spacers between the mixing barrel and the chassis, is raised up into a higher position and, as a result, it also has an increased exit height for the feed-out chute.
This system is meant to allow the feed to be delivered directly into feeder rings or over the sides of troughs or high-sided feed barriers.
On its arrival the mixer wagon unit was hooked up to the farm’s 78hp John Deere 2650 which created, he says, a manoeuvrable pairing of tractor and machine. The only problem was that the high build of the wagon meant that the angle of the pto shaft was steeper than normal and led to early failure of one universal joint.
It was decided right from the start that the diet’s ingredients would be retained as before – a cereal blend with minerals plus silage – with the mix offered to the different stock in varying amounts.
One of the first challenges was to load a sufficient weight of silage into the mixer, Mr Beaman explains. “The source of the problem was the dry matter content of the silage, which was very high – almost haylage and perhaps even a bit more. This meant it tended to become fluffed up in the mixing chamber as the paddles rotated, this reducing the volume of space available.”
He also points out that, while the mixer chopped the bales of silage quite easily, it was not long before the knives became dulled and the silage took longer to have its length reduced to the required format of about 10cm in length.
“There was a suggestion that I put a few bucketfuls of water into the wagon,” he says. “Which, to be fair, did make a difference on the odd occasion I actually tried it. But this practice was too time consuming to make sense on a regular basis. Next year I shall have to make the silage with a lower dry matter content.”
For the present, then, the over-dry silage means that three loads need to be mixed where, under normal circumstances, two loads would have sufficed to achieve the final required volume of feed. Loading up the mixer wagon is a two-year-old New Holland LM410 telehandler complete with bale grab.
“Actual loading is quite straightforward once you get into a routine,” he says. “All the cereal mix is delivered to the farm and stored in self-emptying vertical hoppers. After placing a bale into the machine’s cradle for it to be chopped, I drop off the bale forks from the telehandler and then attach the bucket.
This is held under the outlet chute of the self-emptying cereal hopper and loaded with the necessary amount for each mix.”
One of the early realisations was that the cattle sheds, which lacked any defined feed barrier system, were going to have to be modified so that the feed could be presented to the stock without causing any waste. This was achieved by putting big square straw bales along the edge of the stock buildings to create a full length trough, of sorts.
“I knew it would be far from perfect, but so far it has worked and the amount of feed wasted is pretty minimal,” he says. With these difficulties at least coped with, if not completely resolved, Mr Beaman considered that it was time to take stock of what benefits the arrival of the feeder wagon had provided.
The first point was that the time taken to feed was significantly less – despite their being a greater number of animals to feed and the whole process slowed by having silage that was too dry to mix easily.
Another plus point was that the cattle were now eating all of their diet as an entity rather than picking through wads of silage and then jostling to consume their share of the cereal ration. And on the back of this improved diet formulation, the cattle were, he noticed, starting to look better, cud more and did seem generally more contented.
“I was quite impressed with the change in them,” he comments. “The advice of the nutritionist, to just take it steady and learn to use the system before making any dramatic changes, appears to have been the correct way forward.” Buoyed with the initial success of the new mixer feeding system, Mr Beaman is now re-evaluating his beef policy.
“The first point which comes to mind is that we are now in a position to process and feed a variety of different products. This could reduce our overall feed costs significantly – by using brewers grains, beet, maize meal plus a whole range of by-products that can be sourced from the food industry,” he says. “With nutritionist help, we can formulate different rations from the available feedstuffs.”
Taking this into account, he now plans to erect some feed bunkers in which bulk-delivered feed can be stored and then accessed by the telescopic loader. Plans are also in place to erect two new cattle sheds in time for next winter so that all the cattle can be housed.
On the silage making front, Mr Beaman is no stranger to the world of big square baling. As a useful income extension to his farm activities, he takes on big baling contracts for neighbouring farms using his Massey Ferguson 185 baler to pack up over 10,000 bales.
With no fertiliser used to push the growth on, his silage making is a little later than most farms in the area and there is only one cut made. Last year the 28ha of grass silage was cut in the first week of June.
“The weather was good and dry, and I clearly left it too long before I baled it.” For wrapping, Mr Beaman subscribes to the view that having spent a lot of time, effort and money growing, mowing and baling silage in good condition, it is folly to scrimp on the way it is wrapped and preserved.
And on this score, he insists on applying a minimum of six layers of film – the bales are wrapped using a McHale 998 machine operated by a contractor.
He also likes to put together quite a few bales of hay for use by the youngest stock on the farm and, if the volume allows, for sale. The actual area cut for hay depends on the season and how the grass is being grazed by the farm’s livestock.
This year Mr Beaman reports selling a couple of loads of baled hay, stacked in containers, to a customer in Malta – something which he hopes will perpetuate into this year’s financial accounting period.
Although it is relatively early days, the new mixer wagon has made quite an impact on both the farm and its farmer. Financially, although it’s is difficult at this stage to put precise figures to it, Mr Beaman reckons that his cattle are finishing in better condition and in less time than before.
“The prices we receive are dictated by the market but, overall I think we are making some headway,” he explains. And having reappraised this important sector of the business, he now feels he may be better off producing good quality store cattle to achieve a quicker turnover of cattle.
“When it comes down to it, I can’t really compete with the bigger boys in the beef fattening business,” he says. “But these places need to have a decent source of quality stores to draw upon, and I think I could now be in a position to make a contribution to this demand.”
The next year or so are likely to be interesting times for Mr Beaman as his plans come to fruition. As he himself says, a relatively small farm, such as his, needs to maximise its resources if it is to have any chance of long-term survival.