Meet the Selby farmer who now produces special hay for obese rabbits and guinea pigs

Growing quality grass is as much an important part of the farming world as the cereal crops that will begin being harvested once again this month, and for one North Yorkshire farmer it has been his whole focus for over 20 years.

Ian Burrows grows Timothy grass to produce healthy haylage for the small pets market
Ian Burrows grows Timothy grass to produce healthy haylage for the small pets market

In just over the past decade, Ian Burrows of Newhay Grange, near Hemingbrough, has built a niche business in growing specialist Timothy grass for hay that produces a healthy feed for the pets market of rabbits and guinea pigs.

Ian started by producing haylage for horses but switched to hay eleven years ago and now rents nearly 500 acres that is all down to Timothy grass. He said his decision to move away from haylage to hay had been vindicated.

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“I’d originally had an idea about haylage when I came back into farming through my wife Helen’s father, Bruce Falkingham, who rented us 200 acres.

He farms near Selby

“I made haylage for a while but had seen lots of other farmers getting into the market. At the same time as I was making haylage I was also making hay. I believed there was an opportunity to make a really good hay, to grow it better than it was being done generally and with the right grass.

“I looked at the pet industry and wrote to a number of companies about what kind of product would be right for rabbits and fulfil a need.”

Ian found there was a growing concern over obesity in pets, specifically rabbits, that his Newhay rabbit hay now addresses.

“One of the biggest issues in the pet rabbit world is that they are getting obese and that comes from not eating enough fibre which they get through hay, and instead eating treats given by their owners.

“The idea is to encourage the rabbit to eat more hay as it should be 80 per cent of a rabbit’s diet, but part of the problem had been that the hay being produced was not as palatable as it could be.

“That’s where Timothy hay, cut, dried and stored within 48 hours, fits the bill. We take the basic Timothy hay and add a small amount of natural ingredients that can include dandelions, marigolds, nettles, apples or carrots. It all adds to the taste.

“Rabbits love it and it also helps with their teeth too. Rabbit teeth grow so much daily that they need a fibrous material to grind them down. Timothy hay fulfils that function as well as also helping the gut because of its scratch factor.”

Ian said his inspiration had come from North America.

“In America they had been using Timothy hay for rabbits for years and I thought why didn’t we try growing it here?

“Timothy grass needs the right weather. We obviously cannot do anything about our British weather, but we can cut it and get it off the field, into a dryer and into store quickly. That’s what we did.

“We usually get two cuts, with the first main one we are just taking and started a week or two ago and a second in August. We grow it up to around three-and-a-half to four feet with a lovely seed head, which is what the rabbits really enjoy.

“Sheep graze it from September to January and play a vital role. They help with cleaning out the weed population, fertilising and getting the micro organisms working to improve the soil structure. We try not to plough, preferring to min-till and drill and we use very little in the way of sprays.

“We’ve not used a spray at all in the past two years.”

Ian operates four-year leys with a rotation around his acreage that includes a vining pea crop.

“The vining peas go in during March to May and are taken off in June and July. The land is returned to grass in August. It’s our break crop.”

Ian said that hay grown in the UK is not used in feed generally because of its perceived lack of quality, but that once it is dried the quality goes through the roof and in Italy it is even used as cattle feed.

“We are very conscious of capturing the Timothy grass when it is really green and therefore retains a lot of the nutritional values of how it was in the field. Once we have cut it our next move is to get it quickly into the dryer.

“I found a dryer in Padova in Italy that was designed to dry the grass for the Parmesan cheese factories. They feed cattle dried hay over there so that the milk that comes off the cows doesn’t need chemicals to then make the cheese.”

Ian bought a pet baling machine from a farmer in Germany in order to produce his Newhay rabbit hay into one kilo bags. He said it was quite a change from his haylage machinery producing 20 kilo bales.

“We sold the haylage baling equipment when we moved on to rabbit hay in 2010. We still produce a small quantity of haylage for horses but we are now very much all about the rabbits.”hh