As beef producer Paul Thomas approaches winter, he knows he will be playing catch-up, just as he has done for the past 25 years.
Having run his 300+ head of cattle across the public access land he rents from his local councils through spring, summer and autumn, he returns them to their winter housing this month, where they will be expected to make up for lost time.
The two distinct phases in Mr Thomas’ production system mean both youngstock and their dams have access to nothing other than unimproved grazing from May until November. This means he maximises their growth through winter months, building their rumen health to achieve optimum performance and averaging growth rates of 1.7kg/day during the finishing period.
He says: “Close attention to winter nutrition is essential for our youngstock and our cows. We carry out nutrition planning with Richard Greasley, of ForFarmers, and this involves sampling all our forages and formulating a suitable blend to complement their high forage diet. It is essential our youngstock grow well over winter and our cows are turned out in spring in really good condition.”
The designated Suitable Alternative Natural Greenspace land on which they graze, rented from Bracknell Forest Council and Wokingham District Council, comprises a mixture of rough grazing, wildflower meadows and natural woodland, all of which is open for public access.
Mr Thomas says: “This basically means we cannot fertilise, cultivate or feed any stock on the land, as priority has to be given to its natural habitat, which could be anything from nesting birds to newts or anthills.” It also means he places a high priority on maternal genetics of his stock, building bloodlines with the best possible mothering ability and milking potential, so he can rear his calves without creep.
As a breeder of pedigree British Blondes for the past 18 years, Mr Thomas routinely produces breeding bulls which he successfully exhibits at shows, winning championships and other prizes from a range of high profile events. These include the Royal Welsh, Royal Three Counties and Royal Berkshire shows.
With a focus on their commercial performance, the Blonde bulls are mostly sold into extensive, native-breed suckler herds, which are said to benefit from the calving ease and thrifty calves, along with the ‘continental breed growth rates’ for which the Blonde is renowned.
On the 154 hectares (380 acres) he farms himself around Mortimer Lodge Farm, near Wokingham, he runs the Blondes as suckler cows alongside pedigree Shorthorns, serving both breeds with a well-muscled Blonde and retaining some Blonde cross Shorthorn cows to join his 90-head commercial suckler herd.
As they come in for housing this month, the diet of both the suckler cows and finishing cattle will be switched to a mixture of grass and maize silage and a bespoke, high starch blend. This includes among its ingredients rolled cereals and ground maize and the live yeast, Levucell Titan SC.
He says: “I have learned from experience the importance of good gut health and we know the Levucell SC optimises rumen function and stabilises its pH.” Mr Greasley agrees: “Acidosis is always a risk when cattle move on to a higher starch winter ration and, although it may only occur at a sub-clinical level, it will always impact performance and can damage the lining of the rumen.
“The rumen-specific live yeast, Levucell SC Titan, has been designed to help in exactly this situation, as it can regulate rumen pH, improve fibre digestion and scavenge oxygen, all of which have a positive effect on rumen health.
“For instance, by utilising oxygen it helps create the ideal environment for the rumen’s anaerobic microflora, and this, in turn, gets other important processes under way.” This includes the ‘mopping up’ of lactic acid by the bacteria encouraged by the yeast, which will help to maintain a constant rumen pH of 6.2 or higher. He says: “This is a particularly important benefit in high starch diets, such as those including barley, wheat or maize.”
The product also works on the forage in the ration, particularly breaking down lignin – the indigestible component – and making more of the fibre’s energy available to the animal. Mr Thomas says he has seen the evidence of these benefits in a practical situation.
He says: “About 10 years ago we tried using some cheaper, alternative feeds from another company, but it did not go well. “The cattle’s dung became sloppy and contained undigested grains and excessive fibre. They also had stary coats and looked empty, even with food in front of them. “Discussion with Richard and our vet Evan David, of NorCal, got us back on track and that is the point at which we reformulated the ration and introduced Levucell SC.
“We could see the changes in coat sheen and dung within a matter of weeks. And within two to three months, growth rates went from less than 1kg/day to 1.2kg/day in the youngstock [8-15 months] to 1.7kg/day in finishers [15-24 months].”
Today, cattle are typically finished by 20 months, about two months quicker than in the past. Grades have also increased by one to hit the farm’s U3 target, with a small percentage as Es and Rs.
Mr Thomas says: “Our costings tell us the youngstock cost £1.03/kg liveweight gain and the finishers cost £1.30/kg gain. This tells me that trimming two months off the time to finish is saving us up to £132/head.
“ForFarmers has definitely made us more profitable, which is why we have stuck with them for so many years. I would describe our relationship as a partnership of trust and support.
“They have formulated a ration which grows frame and flesh on the Blonde, the Shorthorn and the cross-bred cattle at a far improved rate of daily gain. It allows us to play catch-up through winter to compensate for summer.
“We could not do it without either breed, as they both complement one another. And we will certainly stick to the Levucell SC, which has helped transform our performance since it was introduced.”