Father and son team Martyn and Duncan Tucker of Crooke Burnell Farm, N Tawton in Devon have been producing quality meat for local butchers for years, but during that time, slowly but surely, they have seen their margins being quietly whittled away. This will come as no surprise to most, if not all of you, as you are probably all in the same boat and, quite realistically, have been for some years now. However, the reason I am highlighting the Tucker Team this month is that rather than sitting on their hands, doing nothing and generally moaning about the state of the industry, they have chosen to try and do something about it.

They have looked at their farm and overall management and believe that they have found ways in which to improve the farm’s efficiency and margins and their answer is simplicity itself as they are concentrating more and more on something that I have been bleating about for ages – indeed ever since I first started these articles nearly seven years ago – “home produced forage’’. It’s not a coincidence that my monthly offerings are entitled “The Forage Diary’’.

The farm comprises 460 acres with the main enterprise being a flock of 830 Suffolk Mule crosses – this enterprise being supplemented by a Friesian herd of 160 bull beef/beef steers. A total of a 120 acres of spring and winter barley are grown each year on a 50/50 split – all the grain being consumed on farm, with the remaining 340 acres being mostly grassland but also included would be up to 70 acres of forage crops.

Grassland is obviously essential for both grazing and conservation – sheep grazing throughout the year with the beef steers from early spring right through until such times as fields have to be unstocked in order to prevent damage. Round bale hay provides winter fodder for both sheep and beef with 60 acres being cut during the second week of June. Quality and quantity of grass is of increasing importance and it is essential to maintain its production and with that in mind, a re-seeding strategy is employed where up to 25 acres are re-seeded each year with a 3-4 year grazing and cutting ley which would include up to 1 kg of white clover per acre.

The farm has enjoyed an extremely healthy lambing percentage over the years, which is currently averaging about 175% - 180%, so a stab at the old calculator will quickly reveal that the stocking rate on this farm will increase by 1400 – 1500 lambs – and believe me, that’s going to take a lot of feeding. The farm lambs down from March/April to the end of May and although there would be plenty of grass until early September, fodder crops was the only answer in which to provide adequate quality and quantity for grazing from mid September and throughout the winter.

‘Meatmaker’ – a unique blend of forage rape, stubble turnips and kale is sown immediately after cereals, broadcast at 2.5 kgs per acre and ring rolled and, following emergence, is top dressed with 50 kgs per acre of straight nitrogen – succeeded by barley in the following spring.

‘Meatmaker’ is also used for the second rotation on the farm which is grass, forage crops for two years followed by grass re-seed – this mixture providing the opportunity for early autumn grazing due to it being sown that much earlier i.e. mid-June.

Another feature of a specific blend of forage crops is that it offers the grazing animals a consistency of feed, with the Rondo stubble turnip being particularly high in crude protein and also retaining palatability throughout the winter. Hobson is the preferred variety of forage rape due to its excellent resistance to powdery mildew complemented by high levels of DOMD and palatability.

The Tuckers are extremely conscious that the prices of bought in feeds and fertilisers seem to be forever on the increase and believe that their increased usage of forage crops contribute significantly toward helping the margins. Chicken manure is bought periodically from a poultry plant near Holsworthy and is delivered in 28 tonne articulated lorry loads. This manure is spread on all proposed forage crop land at the rate of 1 tonne per acre and is ploughed in immediately prior to sowing – costings working out to be approximately £10 per acre, delivered and spread. The ‘NPK’ value of this chicken manure roughly equates to a bag per acre of Universal 15 which at todays prices of £370 per tonne, really does represent very good value indeed. Fertility and organic matter of the farm is also built up by grazing forage crops – this point being quite evident with any following crops, especially spring barley.

Rob Connell, Arable Product Manager for suppliers Mole Valley Farmers said that where soil and field conditions permit, forage crops play an important role toward cost savings by enabling farmers to produce more from home grown forage – especially where winter grazings are concerned as opposed to bringing stock in and feeding them on more expensively produced silage or hay. He also cited the advantages of having a clear rotation with a forage crop policy that enables farmers to sow new leys in the following year. Once the lambs have been fattened off, a large proportion are then sold to Cox’s of Crediton – a local family butcher who has received many positive comments from housewives about the taste and flavour of their lamb.

Jaspers of north Cornwall provide a ready outlet for all their beef with the bull beef being moved on from 12 to 16 months and the Friesian steers between 24 to 26 months.

Although I could describe the Tuckers as being something akin to ‘old hands’ when growing forage crops i.e. there’s not really that much about growing these crops that they don’t already know, there was one particular factor this year that really did surprise them – in a really positive way. The ‘Meatmaker’ forage blend came ready dressed with Integral – a biological seed treatment that, although still in its infancy, is providing excellent results in farm trials throughout the UK, with the Tuckers commenting that they soon noticed a big improvement in speed of germination, more plants, increased speed of growth and ultimately, higher yields, with Martyn Tucker stating that this was the first time that they were able to turn lambs into a forage crop as early as the first week of October – and that’s a clear month ahead of anything else that they have experienced. ‘The speed of growth and extra growth was definitely down to the Integral’ said Mr. Tucker ‘It wasn’t just the year’ he said. With the fertility advantages of forage crops having been already touched on, the other real advantage that must be highlighted is that of nutrition – especially during months when nothing else is really growing. This unique combination of stubble turnips, rape and kale is providing a nutritious feed for well over 1000 animals during a period where many farmers might be more reliant on expensive bought in feeds and this forage crop policy really does keep that option down to an absolute minimum.