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The UK maize market is approximately 350,000 acres, but unfortunately, only about 15 per cent would be fed to beef animals – a measley 52,500 acres.

All dairy farmers are acutely aware that high starch maize is now a virtual must in the cow’s diet as she not only milks extremely well on it, she likes eating it as well. I have long argued that having had the case for maize proven for dairy cows, surely the same could be said about beef production, but all too often, I am met with the scenario that if there is any poor silage about, the beef animal tends to get it, then to be followed with the familiar moan that there’s no money in beef. How can farmers honestly expect to make money from beef when, all too often, the quality of the forage fed is suspect to say the least.

This month, I would like to introduce you to the Heard Family who have been farming near Torrington in N Devon since 1960 during which time, to say the very least, they have seen and experienced a number of changes – not just to their own farming enterprise, but to agriculture in general.

The Heard family team comprising of husband and wife Arthur and Beryl plus son Jonathon and daughter-in-law Clare (AJ & BA Heard), had an extremely successful dairy herd of 135 cows which were averaging just over 8000 litres (4000 of which was from forage), but, even so, they decided that there was more to life than just milking cows twice a day, 7 days a week, working seemingly ever longer hours for a decreasing return and, after a lot of soul searching they decided to have a total change and in June 2005, the cows were sold.

The change to which I refer meant that the black and whites were to be replaced with whites, creams, light browns and blue and whites – they had opted to go all beef.

As they had to start from scratch, it meant that stock had to be bought in quite large numbers initially, and they chose to buy stores from the ages of 12 – 18 months old, finishing them from 24 – 30 months. Various purchase options were considered, but they prefer to buy independently using Hallworthy market in N Cornwall, Holsworthy in W Devon and Cutcombe in N Somerset, with their preferred breeds being Belgian Blue, Simmental and Charolais. Limousins, although being acknowledged as a good beef breed, tend to be a little ‘lively’ and, as such, are likely to be avoided.

With margins known to be tight, bought in feeds had to be reduced to a bare minimum – one of their goals being to eliminate them altogether and, having the experience of producing top quality forage for their successful dairy herd, felt that the way forward was a continuation of that policy.

Furze Farm totals 200 acres, of which 30 acres are maize, the rest being grassland, 60 acres of which are permanent pasture. Conservation land is cut twice, with the first cut being taken around 12th. May at 70D+ and wilted to 25 per cent dry matter or above, with nitrogen being applied as a straight at 80 units per cut. Phosphate and potash are applied as straights during the autumn following the last grazing. With winters becoming milder, grass grows throughout the year and 150 ewes from a neighbouring farm are brought in to graze all surplus grass up to mid February when everything receives its first top dressing of ‘N’. ‘Although we don’t have any of our own sheep’ commented Arthur, ‘they are a very useful management tool indeed’.

Their re-seeding policy has always been a 5-6 year general purpose ley which included a small amount of clover and as that proved so successful, they intend to stick with the same composition, but with a higher inclusion of clover as they want to capitalize as much as possible on ‘free’ nitrogen. The tetraploid content of the mixture would be quite high as these grasses have demonstrated on farm that they are preferentially grazed through their high sugar content and also contribute toward a good crown rust and mildew resistance.

Additives are always used, whatever the season, with Silo Action being the preferred option on grass and Eco Corn on maize.

Maize was always grown for its starch content and both Arthur and Jonathon feel that if top quality maize will produce milk from a dairy cow, then surely it will put meat on a beef animal. They certainly do not subscribe to the theory that beef can be fed on poor quality forage – and still make money. ‘Margins are even tighter on beef than with milk, so it is imperitive to feed the best quality forage possible’ they said.

Maize tends to be cut around late September or very early October – depending on the season – with the joint goals of 30 per cent dry matter and starch. They have used various varieties over the years, but because the area is fairly marginal for maize growers, they have to stick to early and well proven material with KWS bred Kentaurus being one such example.

All stock is brought in during late October and are fed exclusively on a 50/50 mix of grass and maize silage until turnout, with intakes being as high as 12.5 kgs of dry matter for the final three months of finishing.

Jonathon said that they have developed a very simple, yet effective system, but that they are still in a steep learning curve. Their 50/50 ration of top quality grass and maize silage is certainly good enough to put on up to 1.2 kgs per day LWG.

With beef margins being continually squeezed, Jonathon has diversified somewhat into pheasant rearing (Furze Game Farm) and, alongside his business partner and friend, they are now collecting dead game during the shooting season across the whole of the south west – some of which are exported to Belgium.

Life on Furze Farm has become a little more relaxed of late, although Beryl continues to work hard on her successful Bed & Breakfast business which has been running for nigh on 30 years and Clare working part time as a nursery nurse at Langtree School. Quality of life during middle age is becoming increasingly important, but the family are acutely aware that in todays agricultural climate, the production of top quality home grown forage and attention to detail is the key to success. There is no short cut to quality.