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Alkalisation drives beef production self-sufficiency…

Improving the nutritional quality of their home-grown barley through alkalisation has enabled Somerset mixed farmers Colin and Craig Rawle to eliminate the need for purchased concentrates to finish store cattle and the beef progeny from their suckler herd.

At 500-acre South Quarme Farm near Minehead in the Exmoor National Park, Colin and Craig run 80 spring calving sucklers alongside 800 Texel and Suffolk cross ewes. The suckler herd calves indoors during the spring before grazing the farm’s grassland between April and December.

Colin (left) and son Craig Rawle (centre) rely on input from beef specialist Katherine Muirhead

The home-bred cattle are housed over the winter and fed grass silage. The Rawles only grow 20 acres of cereal for alkalisation but say they have found the ideal system to help save costs and make the most of home-grown forage.

“We started treating our barley with Home n’ Dry pellets, which are based on urea and sustainable soya sources, after the 2019 cereal harvest. It has worked really well – both in terms of boosting the nutritional value of our home-grown barley and, in going down the cereal crop alkalisation route, we have also gained more flexibility,” says Craig.

Prior to using Home n’ Dry, the Rawles tried to harvest their barley dry and then rolled it for feeding back to the stock. “But at our altitude that is always quite challenging,” says Craig.

Initially, Craig did try an alternative urea-based grain treatment system, but found mixing two products difficult to handle, so switched to Home n’ Dry following advice from his beef specialist adviser Katherine Muirhead, who now works for Duffields.

Beef specialist Katherine

“Essentially, the use of Home n’ Dry helps mixed farms make the most of fully mature home-grown cereals and reduce wastage. Compared with earlier harvesting methods and inputs, fully mature grain is higher in starch and energy, which allows farmers to maximise the nutritional value in their feed cereals and increase ruminant ration starch levels while minimising the risk of acidosis,” she says.

Katherine adds that alkaline treatment of grain helps maintain rumen pH at the target of 6-6.5 when it is fed to ruminant livestock. “This ensures the rumen microbes can operate at optimum efficiency to maximise the maximum nutritional value from home grown feeds and forages. Diet alkalisation also leads to reduced methane production from ruminant livestock.”

Craig explains that by using Home n’ Dry – albeit after harvesting a relatively mature crop – they don’t now have to dry the harvested cereal, which he says also saves money, and gives them more flexibility over harvest date.

“This year we combined the crop at the beginning of the sun window on 1st September and that has also enabled us to successfully sow a follow-on grass ley before the autumn seeding window closed.”

Once in contact with moisture, the Home n’ Dry pellets quickly release ammonia into the grain. The resultant feed is alkaline, as well as having an increased protein content.

“We’ve found it very easy to make our own Alkagrain. By adding 30kg of Home n’ Dry pellets per tonne of barley and then sheeting it, we get a very stable and digestible concentrate feed – and a cereal crop that has received more than a four-percentage point uplift in protein, which is important. And when you take the sheet off to feed it any residual ammonia smell has dissipated and it’s just like handling dry, rolled barley,” Craig says.

Craig says his treated barley now analyses out at 14% crude protein, 11.75 MJ/Kg ME and 18% moisture – making it perfect for a cattle finishing feed.

During the winter housed period, growing cattle receive 6kg per head per day of Home n’ Dry treated barley alongside grass silage. During the 2019/20 winter the Rawles recorded an average daily liveweight gain of 1.6kg per head per day.

“I’m really happy with the results we have been getting. Previously, our finishing cattle were gaining only 1.3kg per head per day and being slaughtered at 670 days of age with a 54% killing out percentage. But in spring 2020 we managed to finish a batch of store cattle on Home n’ Dry barley that averaged 1.6kg per head per day and finished 20 days earlier with the same killing out percentage and a better quality carcass,” says Craig.

More recently, heifers have been putting on between 1.8kg and 2.0kg per head per day – and steers 1.7kg and 1.9kg after 500kg liveweight. “Grading has been good too with all our finishing cattle making 650kg-750kg liveweight at between 20 and 24 months of age,” adds Craig.