The prolonged spell of cold weather which typified the start of the season gave growers a shorter drilling window, compared with previous years. Thoughts are now turning to weed control and perhaps treating crops to protect plants against eyespot.
John Burgess, of KWS, has long been advising producers to avoid ‘calendar farming’ and to consider a reduction in seed rates when sowing later than usual. With average drilling dates around the country about 10 days behind, compared with previous years, he advises anyone with seed still in the bag to exercise patience and revisit their strategy.
He says: “As plant breeders, we have made great strides in producing earlier hybrids which can compete against the traditional high-yielding varieties, in terms of yield.
“These have essentially allowed growers to ‘buy back’ time, so there is no need to be alarmed, if sowing is delayed. It will mean, however, a reduction in seed rates of about 5 per cent. In these situations this should improve crop performance by allowing plants to intercept more light.”
Andrew Clune, of BASF, is based in the south of England and expects some of his clients will be drilling in June. Growers who plan to doublecrop with grass this year in particular may be forced to wait until later in the season, before sowing. He believes a spray programme which includes both a pre-emergence and a post-emergence herbicide is key to maximising yields in any situation.
“If conditions are right for the maize, they are also right for weeds,” says Mr Clune. “Maize is a plant which dislikes competition and therefore growers should take advantage of every opportunity to reduce the weed burden. Weeds need to be brought under control before the plant’s 6 leaf stage, by which time the maximum number of potential ears/kernels will have been set.”
The use of a pre-emergence, residual herbicide is an essential element of successful weed control in maize, he says, largely because it improves the ability of post-emergence contact programmes to check crop growth. This is especially important in a comparatively short growing season; weeds must be brought under control at an early stage, to minimise plant stress.
With low commodity prices all round, many growers will understandably be looking to cut costs. But Mr Clune says independent trials have shown one application of fungicide over the growing season can increase yields and give a return on investment. Farms in the West Country are especially vulnerable to fungal diseases, he adds.
“A number of studies have indicated maize will respond to a fungicide treatment for eyespot, even in crops where the disease is invisible to the naked eye. But it is only useful as a preventative treatment, because once the fungus takes hold, there is little which can be done to reduce crop losses.
“Fungicide treatments containing pyraclostrobin can produce a number of responses, in addition to disease control. These include improved rooting, greater drought tolerance and larger cobs and kernels.”
REPORTING from Devon and Cornwall is Mike Corp, of Procam South West, who estimates drilling has been roughly 10 days later than usual in his region. He admits predictions made over winter that the uptake of plastic would fall in 2016 have been proved wrong. Initial forecasts, partly based on the decline in milk profitability, saw producers decreasing the number of acres under plastic, but sales have actually risen by 15 per cent on the year.
Several factors have influenced growers’ decisions on whether the technique will prove cost-effective, he explains.
“For the past couple of years, poor weather has made it difficult to achieve the desired forage quality and harvest date in some parts of the country. This has understandably made some farmers nervous,” Mr Corp says. “To compound the issue, the Environment Agency’s attention has turned to maize, due to its potential to exacerbate soil erosion, if harvest is late. Some farmers in my area have been threatened with a possible enforcement notice, for leaving mud on the roads, for example.
“These are recent developments, but the fact is, maize is a very important crop to many livestock farmers and they are fully aware of its value as a feedstuff. Their two priorities are to ensure the crop can be harvested successfully and it will have a high level of nutritional value.”
In some cases, dairy farmers are moving away from buying-in maize or renting additional acreage, the value of which has risen largely due to demand for the crop for use in anaerobic digesters. They are increasingly growing maize on their own land, in order to remain in full control over its management and ensure quality is maximised.
“Plastic can be an attractive option for achieving forage targets and many farmers are less concerned about outlay and more focused on the overall financial package which the crop has to offer. The technique also offers the opportunity to sow slightly later varieties, if necessary, with more certainty of a larger harvest and assured quality.”
The volatile weather pattern over the past few years has fully justified decisions by plant breeders to concentrate on early-maturing varieties, he says.
“Some 10 to 15 years ago, ultra-earlies were not available and even the earliest types were not known for producing acceptable yields. Within a comparatively short time frame, in farming terms, we have been given access to early-maturing varieties which have the potential to match – and even exceed – the performance of standard varieties. Adding plastic to this equation can greatly reduce risk and this is very important for today’s growers.”