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SOMERSET farmer Roy Loud (Alstone Court Partners) has been a beef farmer ever since moving to Alstone Court Farm, near Highbridge in Somerset back in 1980 - prior to that being a dairy farmer near Chard.

Alstone Court had always been a beef and sheep farm and when the Loud's took on the tenancy, they decided to keep it that way - subsequently buying the farm as a sitting tenant in 2001.

The farm itself is 260 acres and together with rented land and grass keep, the total area farmed would extend to nearly 500 acres.

They have a pedigree herd of 25 Simmental cows and followers, 20 commercial cows and an additional 150 head of mixed beef cattle. They also carry a flock of 750 ewes with lambing due to commence in March. The mixed beef herd tends to be bought between yearling stage and 12 months old, with everything then being fattened off for eventual sale to specialist beef buyers SCFF of Langport.

The farm has always been predominantly grass - soil type and exposure to sea breezes making cereal growing almost impossible, although they did try it for a couple of years some time ago, but unfortunately, somewhat unsuccessfully!!

So, grass it was then and for several years the farm happily turned in good yields of top quality grazing and silage, with bought in barley - which was rolled on farm - and protein pellets, which were all fed as a complementary feed during the winter. The system worked really well, the beef were being finished off at 24 months and with bought in feeds being kept to a minimum, there was a bit of profit left over at the end of the day - even for beef farmers!!

However - and here's the but!! Unbeknown to us all and lurking around a corner in 2007 was an escalation in cereal prices which, and at a stroke, wiped away the margins that were being made and metaphorically speaking, the Loud's felt themselves being washed up the Bristol Channel without the proverbial paddle!!

'When the going gets tough - the tough get going''.

A motto that is true in lots of cases and none more so than this situation. Cereal prices had risen so much that beef margins had been all but eroded, but there were still well over 200 mouths to be fed and during a 'sit down and talk things through'' situation with their agronomists and seed suppliers Pearce Seeds, it was proposed that forage maize could be the answer.

A site that is on the Somerset levels and just about sea level suggests to many that this is about as good as it gets - but hang on a moment. Soil type is one of medium to heavy loam and is difficult to work with at the best of times and being so close to the Bristol Channel means that virtually all the farm is subjected to sea breezes and salt winds at times - so getting maize to grow, stay upright, produce acceptable yields of dry matter and starch would not be easy - another additional problem being that wherever the maize was going to be planted, it would be following long term grass which would enhance the problem of wireworm.

Spring 2008 arrived and 40 acres of the most appropriate area of the farm were selected, soil tested and then immediately sprayed off with a glyphosate product and once a total kill had been achieved, the whole area had a dressing of farmyard manure before being ploughed, with 50 kgs of nitrogen per acre broadcast into the seedbed just prior to drilling.

During this time, Tim Rutter, Roy Loud's agronomist from Pearce Seeds was charged with the task of establishing which variety of maize 'ticked all the boxes'', was very early and ultimately, the variety to grow.

For a number of years now, Pearce Seeds have had their own set of maize trials - indeed, they have been known to monitor up to four sites during a particular season where they keep regular checks on early vigour, tasselling dates, cob formation, finally bringing everything to harvest where they can then establish dry matter yields, earliness and starch levels. Once having established and collated all this information, Pearce Seeds can then recommend, with some authority, which variety will consistently perform well under given circumstances and situations. The variety that was selected for Roy Loud to grow was Revolver, a very early maturing variety with quite exceptional starch levels and very good standing power - another factor in it's favour being that the seed was able to be treated with Poncho Pro - primarily to combat wireworm.

The seed was sown in early May at 45,000 seeds per acre accompanied by Maize Start - a phosphate based product applied 'down the spout'' at 50 kgs per acre, is unique to Pearce Seeds and is always recommended for maize that is grown on soils that take a little longer to warm up. A combination of Blazer and Pontoon was applied as a pre-emergence spray during mid May - Blazer for meadow grass and broad leaved weed control and Pontoon for leatherjackets. On July 4 and about the eighth leaf stage, Maize Boost, a foliar feed from Yara UK Ltd. was applied at full rate.

As we all know, 2008 (and 2007) were particularly difficult years for maize growers with the Loud's expressing some concern during the late summer as to whether this crop would actually 'make it'' - or not!! But make it, it did!! The Loud's stuck rigidly to their agronomist's recommendations - both in varietal choice, seedbed preparation, herbicide and fertiliser recommendations with the crop being harvested on 18th October, yielding 18 tonnes of fresh weight per acre at 27.3% dry matter and 31.4% starch - the contractor remarking that it was probably one of the best crops in the area.

Maize is currently only being fed to cattle that are being finished i.e. from the ages of between 18 and 20 months, right through until slaughter and although it is still only early days, the Loud's have already noticed that appetites have been stimulated, rolled barley has been reduced by at least 2/3rds and intakes have improved - the silage ratio being 2/3rds maize and 1/3 rd grass - everything being fed ad lib and even at this rate of consumption, there will still be some maize left to feed to the last of the yard cattle in June.

Although this article is primarily about maize being used to successfully fatten cattle, it should not be forgotten that the main crop on this farm is grass and the importance in which it is perceived by both the Loud family and their agronomists Pearce Seeds.

All the grassland on this farm is long term and over the years, Roy Loud has used just one custom made mixture from Pearce Seeds for all re-seeding.

It has been used for many years and is designed to give all season production using early, intermediate and late heading perennial ryegrass varieties for early grazing by sheep and then silage plus grazing by cattle and sheep during the rest of the season. Because of the farm's proximity to the sea, frosts are a bit of a rarity with grass growth subsequently occurring quite early and continuing well into the late autumn and in addition to providing a long growing season, the inclusion of 1 kg of white clover provides higher protein forage and fixes nitrogen - for free!! The mixture is sown at 15 kgs per acre and has a tetraploid content of 54%.

All the varieties chosen by Pearce Seeds are based on their own local grass and clover trials plus data from the NIAB Herbage Varieties Guide. A high importance is always placed on D-values of individual varieties, as is early spring growth, yields, ground cover and disease ratings - especially crown rust which is an ever increasing issue in the south west. 'With so many different systems being employed on farm these days, it is extremely difficult to obtain an off the shelf grass mixture that fits every farmer's criteria'' said Tim Rutter. 'This is why custom made grass mixtures feature very highly with us at Pearce Seeds and is something that we actively encourage'' he said.

The Loud's grew maize for the first time in 2008 and although it proved an extremely difficult year, the results from their beef herd are already dictating that not only should they be continuing with maize, they will actually be increasing their acreage with Roy Loud saying 'We had some really difficult decisions to make in 2007, but on reflection, the increase in the price of cereals forced us to grow maize and has ultimately saved us money''.