Making hay and keeping pets happy

A former arable farm is doing better out of rabbit food than it did out of wheat. Chris Benfield explains.

Somebody would work it out so we might as well start by saying the core subject here is hay, which sells at up to £4,690 a tonne.

The farmer is not, of course, getting anything like that. And it is pretty special hay. You could call it superhay.

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It cost Ian Burrows plenty to be in a position to produce the stuff. But now he is running a profitable business, employing five more people than the same farm did as a straight arable operation, and is talking about needing more growers to work with him.

Mr Burrows, 44, runs West End Farm, near South Duffield, between Selby and Howden, with his wife, Helen. Her father is farm owner Bruce Falkingham, who was in cereals until he sat down with his daughter and son-in-law, in 2004, to discuss how they might make a living as tenants of his 220 acres. This year, thanks to superhay, they will be running an additional 100 acres rented.

Mr Burrows used to work in textiles. Mr Falkingham has an equestrian supplies store, R&R Country, in Hemingbrough. He knew there was demand for ultra-clean hay, for horses good enough to have their performance affected by mild respiratory conditions. And Mr Burrows knew a trick or two from the wool trade about extracting dust.

They put £175,000 into machinery, did a deal with stables in the Newmarket area to supply dust-free hay and haylage, and began to learn just how different one hay can be from another.

One of their first moves was to start growing Timothy – a good grass, but tricky to establish, not particularly productive and inclined to fail altogether in UK weather. North American imports have had most of the top-dollar market up to now. As well as being nutritious, American hay is valued for cleanliness. Where it grows well, it also dries quickly, before it starts to grow mouldy. Dust extraction reduces the mould problem but the Yorkshire team decided they needed to go back a step.

Considering their advantage in terms of shipping miles, they reasoned, maybe they could afford to equal North American sunshine with artificial drying.

But most drying machines would require hay to be chopped. And longer fibres provide more occupation in eating – meaning less boredom and more exercise for the digestive system. It was going to cost £150,000 for the right machine. And Mr Burrows needed to line up another market for top-grade long-straw Timothy hay.

Fifteen miles from the farm, near Snaith, is the factory of Burgess Pet Care, which employs around 80 people to make and sell 150 products. They include Supacat, Supadog, Suparat, Supahamster and so on, but the company’s pride and joy is its Excel range for “fibrevores” – a term covering 1.6m pet rabbits, 900,000 guinea pigs and smaller numbers of chinchillas and a chinchilla cousin, called the degu. Hamsters are different – more like rats and mice.

Burgess sponsors what used to be the Bradford Championship Show – now the Burgess Premier Small Animal Show at Harrogate. On the day it opened, in January, the Yorkshire Post quoted Paul Miley, managing director of Burgess. Contrary to popular belief, he said, carrots and lettuce were not natural foods for rabbits.

Readers called to say theirs thrived on plenty of both. But Burgess sticks by Mr Miley’s advice. A carrot or lettuce is fine as a treat, says the company. But what fibrevores would eat most of, in the wild, is grass.

Ken Stirk, animal nutritionist and technical director for Burgess, says: “The average rabbit in captivity lives three to four years. It should be living 10 or more. A rabbit’s teeth can grow 12 cms in a year and if it does not wear them down through chewing, it can get to the point that its mouth is too sore to eat. Also, it gets bored if its food is too easy. In the wild, 70 per cent of its time would be spent foraging.”

Yorkshire superhay turned out to be just what Burgess was looking for. Mr Burrows bought his drier and then a packaging machine, so he could wrap his crop into half-kilo and one-kilo bundles, as well as bales for the horse business. Together with an enormous storage shed, his investment in superhay came to around £400,000. Defra paid a third, for the job creation.

In a pet shop, a kilo of top-grade rabbit forage – Timothy hay with a sprinkling of camomile, marigold, and dandelion – will retail at around £4.69.

Last year, Mr Burrows sold about 600 tonnes through Burgess and about 250 tonnes into the equestrian market. He expects to average £200-£250 a tonne. At the moment, that is not very different from the price of standard hay, but, normally, he would expect to be getting a premium of around £100.

Fuel costs have sunk British grass-drying ventures in the past. The difference in this case, says Mr Burrows, is that he is not at the mercy of market prices for bog-standard products.

“What you are getting is a hay that has been grown like wheat, rather than the mowings off any old back paddock,” he sums up.

“Most people order hay without any idea what they are buying. Ours has 95 per cent of the nutritional value of the day it was cut. And it has less than 50 spores per milligram. A count of 60,000 or more is quite common and you can find more than a million. At that level, never mind the animal, it is not good for the person who opens the bale. You are talking about the stuff that causes Farmer’s Lung.”

Pet owners are fussy, and as well as controlling spores and dust, he has to keep his supplies clean of bits of plastic and pop cans. Organic composts are out, because they include too much rubbish, and the main fertilisation mechanism is a flock of sheep which a neighbour brings to graze the stubbles.

For the Burgess image, the farm participates in Operation Pollinator, a scheme to encourage bees and other insects. Minimising spraying means putting more into jobs like harrowing. Rotations include peas and clover, to fix nitrogen naturally.

New avenues are already opening. A pet bedding manufacturer wants to try rape straw, which has advantages, including easy compostability. And Ken Stirk is wondering if there might be a market for nettle hay – once a staple of rabbit farming.

Ian Burrows says: “What we like about this direction is that it has given us stability. Even with grain prices as they are now, we have no regrets.”

He is looking for other growers to work with. Call 01757 630730, or see newhay.co.uk/