As November turned to December, there were still many acres of standing maize crops in fields across the country and, as the rain continued to fall, the chances of salvaging a useful crop diminished.
Given the likelihood of experiencing wetter autumns seems set to increase as impacts of climate change become more evident, are there lessons which can be learned from such a difficult season?
Brian Copestake, sales manager for Limagrain, says maize harvested as late as November and December is ‘unacceptable’ for many reasons.
He says: “Late harvested maize results in poorer yield and quality, meaning the nutritional value for animals is very much reduced.
Contamination of the stem and leaves occurs when the crop is in standing water, because when water recedes, sediment is deposited on the lower portion of the plant.
“Birds will pick at the cobs and the damage will result in mould and mycotoxins forming on the cobs, leading to further deterioration in feed quality.
“This means cows are eating something which is unpalatable and of poor nutritional value.”
He also points to the ‘PR disaster’ when soil from the wet fields runs onto roads and into rivers as a result of damage done by harvesting traffic.
He says: “This environmental ‘own goal’ does not need to happen and the damage done to soils can take many years to put right.”
Mr Copestake suggests growers can take a number of simple steps to ensure similar problems are not encountered this year, even if weather conditions turn out to be very difficult again.
He says: “Sowing an early variety is a must.
New early varieties, such as Prospect, are high yielding and have a very high starch content.
By looking at the Recommended Lists on the NIAB or Maize Growers Association website, it is possible to identify these early varieties which have no yield penalty.
“It is vital to choose the right field which ideally will have a southerly aspect and will not be too high in altitude.
Avoid fields which drain directly to a river or stream if possible.
“From our trials, those drilling maize in the last week in April or the first week in May have delivered the best results.
It is important to wait until soils have warmed to at least 8degC to ensure vigorous establishment.
“Creating a good seedbed which is free of compaction will ensure good seed to soil contact, but this may prove challenging in places after a difficult harvest.
“Keeping on top of weeds and monitoring the crop in the early establishment phase, so any problems with bird damage can be addressed, is important.”
The dry spring in some areas last year meant pre-emergence herbicides were not always the first choice for weed control.
This is according to Georgina Wood, field technical manager with Syngenta, who suggests this meant growers had to carefully consider the best strategy for post-emergence herbicides.
She says: “It is vital to control weeds early in the season to prevent a yield penalty.
Last year, many growers chose not to use pre-emergence herbicides because of the very low moisture levels during spring.
“An added challenge was the recent loss of Calaris, so now a mixture of products is required to achieve complete weed control.
“Targeted application of herbicides is increasingly important and it is vital growers know which weeds they are trying to control so they can target applications accordingly.
“Even small patches of grass-weeds in a maize crop, such as black-grass, can become problematic if left untreated, so it is important to act quickly where these are identified.
“Grass-weeds are best controlled by nicosulfuron and, for those farms where black-grass is a problem, growing a maize crop can present an opportunity to control this grass-weed because of the entirely different set of chemistry used to tackle it.
“Where broadleaved weeds are the main issue, we recommend Callisto, which works well on a range of species, including fat hen, redshank and black nightshade.
It can be used from the two-leaf to the eight-leaf stage of plant development.
“Ideally, weeds should be removed at the earliest opportunity, before the four leaf stage of the crop.
After this, weed competition alters the physiology of the maize plant, resulting in yield loss.
“If grass-weed control is required simultaneously, mixing Callisto with a product containing nicosulfuron will be very effective.”
Looking ahead to this season, Miss Wood says using pre-emergence herbicides is a useful tool for farmers who have many competing time commitments in spring.
She says: “Many dairy farmers who are growing maize are likely to be very busy with first cut silage at around the time when weeds begin emerging in the crop.
“Limited time availability may mean they cannot always apply post-emergence herbicides at the right time, so in these situations, using a pre-emergence herbicide can help by allowing more flexibility with timing of future applications.”
Nick Stevens is the arable manager for A4 Farms in Calne, Wiltshire, and he manages two separate holdings, totalling 972 hectares (2,400 acres).
Last year, a total of 220ha (543 acres) of maize was grown across both farms and fed to the home farm dairy herd and sold off-farm to other dairy farmers.
A cool start meant maize did not establish quickly early in the season, but weeds were not particularly problematical either.
Mr Stevens says: “We sprayed all stubbles with Roundup prior to drilling and this gave us a clean start.
We used a pre-emergence pendimethalin product as a holding spray and this meant we did not find there were large numbers of weeds once maize had germinated.
“We sprayed again with a post-emergence spray at the two- to three-leaf stage, so we were in well before rows began to close up.
Because it had been quite cold up until this point, there were not many weeds to take out.
“A warmer spell arrived in June, then the maize crop romped away.”
Mr Stevens says despite challenging conditions in autumn, they managed to harvest all the maize on October 26 before the ground became very wet.
He says: “Yields on the stronger land were 40-45 tonnes/ha [16-18t/ acre] and, on the lighter land, we were typically achieving 30t/ha [12t/acre] and 40t/ha [16t/acre].
“Maize analysed at 35 per cent dry matter with 11.8 ME, so I was pleased with this.”
Above: The nutritional value for animals is reduced in late harvested maize
Reflecting back on the conditions at harvest in 2019, Miss Wood says the very wet conditions meant the risk of soil loss and diffuse pollution was increased, but the establishment of ‘green headlands’ prior to maize drilling was one potential solution to this.
She says: “Syngenta is encouraging growers to turn non-cropped or low yielding headlands into ‘green headlands’ using a seed mix we have developed.
“There are two mixtures available: a brassica mix containing oil radish, phacelia, berseem clover, vetch and buckwheat; and an alternative non-brassica mix which swaps out the oil radish for linseed and crimson clover.
“The headlands provide a physical barrier to reduce run-off and protect watercourses, sensitive habitats and public roads, while capturing nutrients and supporting soil structure.
“They also create a valuable habitat for wildlife and beneficial insects, and can count towards the Ecological Focus Area required under cross-compliance for the Basic Payment Scheme.
“We have received very favourable feedback from growers who have seeded these headlands successfully during the very dry spring of 2019.
“The headlands also played an important role in reducing potential environmental impacts of harvesting during poor conditions.”
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