Farm Of The Week: It’s quality that counts at feeding time

Dawn Croft of Burtree Farm
Dawn Croft of Burtree Farm
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When you hear that someone comes from Swaledale it stands to reason that they are going to know a thing or two about sheep and cattle. It’s ingrained into their inner being whether male or female.

And for Dawn Croft, who now farms and runs an aspiring animal feed business at Burtree Farm, livestock was always going to play a major part in her life, no matter what twists and turns there were along the way.

The family farm set in the beautiful but rugged backwater hamlet of Hurst, on the A19 between Thirsk and Easingwold, was home to Dawn’s mum Ethel Hilary an expert at stock-judging competitions.

She said: “That’s where I got my love of stock-judging from, but from being in my teens I decided that providing the right kind of feed for cattle and sheep was going to be my thing.

“I remember this rep coming around trying to sell to my granddad and the rep didn’t know what a gimmer or a wether was. I turned to my granddad and told him that providing the right feed for animals on farms was going to be my job. I knew I could do a better job than the rep who obviously knew nothing about sheep.”

In the past 12 years since Dawn moved to Burtree Farm she has increased production of feed substantially from when she first started out with a mixer in a rented shed at Topcliffe. Prior to that she was a nutritionist and feed sales rep with another company.

“I had been formulating diets for this other company, but I wasn’t happy about it because I knew in my own heart that I could give farmers something that would work better. I would never have bought what they were selling for my own stock as I knew exactly what they were putting in and I felt they were charging far too much for it.”

With the courage of her convictions firmly in place Dawn set about starting her fledgling business, which is today simply referred to as Croft Feeds.

“When I first came here all we had were chicken huts, but I gradually replaced them and now we have three units where the milling and packaging takes place. We make feed here six days a week. I try any new feed diet on our own stock first to make sure it is palatable, and analyse performance.

“I’ve always felt passionately about all livestock receiving the right quality feed. It’s not a question of everyone using the same diet and I spend hours talking with my farmer customers and studying how their stock is performing.

“As a fellow farmer and farmer’s daughter I’m always interested. On farm with a customer my background is a massive advantage because when farmers say something such as ‘Do you realise?’ I’m able to say that I do.

“This year, due to the weather, there is a lack of quality in home-grown crops. The silage largely lacks goodness and the same is true of wheat and barley. That causes problems in formulating diets so we’re adding moisture by supplementing with French maize because the starch release is slower. It’s more expensive to buy but you get a better result.”

Dawn buys biscuit and bread to include in her beef diets and recently invested in new machinery to strip the loaves from their packaging. The bread is more processed than barley and yet costs less.

Further analysis of her farm’s silage brought about another realisation this past year.

“We knew our cattle could perform better and when we had the analysis conducted we found that the silage was short of iodine. This controls energy levels and without iodine cattle don’t grow very well. It’s very important for bull beef that they have the appropriate amount of iodine so we made up a higher supplementation in the mill. It’s been a great success and our own cattle, plus now our customers cattle too, have performed far better.

“It is vital to check your silage for trace elements because that way you see what you are short of and you can feed accordingly. If you don’t check you won’t be able to understand why your cattle or sheep are not reaching the target weight gain you are looking for.

“There are lots of farmers who just feed a mineral and don’t even know whether it’s what they should be feeding. That can be a tragic waste of money in times when margins are all important.

“Some of the issues with sheep this year concern selenium and vitamin E. Receiving the right vitamins and trace elements should be the farmer’s primary concern.

“It’s important that farmers don’t buy on price this year. They need to buy on quality. The game is all about liveweight gain versus the cost of your feed. I know that farmers can end up paying far more than they should when they think they are buying their feed cheaply, that’s false economy. There may not be a great margin in black and white bulls, but there is one if you do your job right.”

Dawn owns 65 acres at Burtree Farm, has another 30 acres up at Hurst and rents additional land as she needs it. The farming operation includes 200 head of black and white bulls for bull beef, housed in a new purpose-built shed; and 300 commercial sheep all lowland breeds including Dorset X, Mule, Suffolk X and Beltex. She lambs in December, which is why her lambs are so big already. “I buy in a certain amount of sheep each year and I keep the best gimmers to breed off. The fat lambs go for the Easter market. I look to buy bull calves in batches of 20 from a dairy farm.

“Bull beef is all about liveweight gain and pence per kilo. Once they have reached around 500-600 kilos the conversion rate of feed used to weight gained decreases. That’s why I sell at that stage whether through the livestock market at Thirsk or via Dawn Meats.” Dawn works on the feed business during the week and on the farm at weekends, the rest of the time her stockman Mareuse from Poland tends the livestock.

“I wish I was out six days a week on the road, but because I formulate the diets and they are specific to each farm I’m in the office more than I want to be. Ideally, I’d like to take on a sales representative who understands livestock and feed, as well as a new HGV2 driver/mechanic to meet all our orders. We cover a large part of North Yorkshire, County Durham and Cumbria as far as Silloth.”

“We’re also earning a great reputation amongst cattle show people who recognise the finish our feed can bring and at last year’s Great Yorkshire Show our customers were filmed for a mini TV programme which you can watch on You Tube if you Google You Tube Croft Feeds.”

Link for You Tube TV programme of Croft Feeds: www.youtube.com/watch?v=qW16UtqWU8E