While the past couple of growing seasons have been beset with problems, especially in marginal areas, crops in all regions got off to a good start for 2014, heat units in early season were around 15-20 per cent higher than the 10-year average.
The old adage ‘knee high by early July’ does not apply on a number of farms this year, where crops had already reached waist height by this date. It is therefore more difficult to justify many of the ‘insurance policy’ measures, such as starter fertilisers and growing under plastic.
The benefits of starter fertilisers are widely accepted, but their main purpose is to sustain the crop in a difficult growing season, so their influence is likely to be less marked this season. The principle is the same for maize under plastic, although it is only relevant to about 5 per cent of UK plantings and uptake is not expected to increase significantly.
Despite upbeat predictions for the maize crop, experts have warned the rapid growth may lead to the tasselling stage being reached earlier than usual, possibly bringing forward the period normally associated with the greatest risk of maize eyespot. The disease can cause losses of up to 70 per cent in the worst case scenario, according to Norfolk-based Ed Stevens of Hutchinsons, although he considers it to be a low risk year.
“I have not been advising growers in my region to apply a fungicide; here in the east of the country, rainfall levels are much lower compared with Western counties, where a fungicide would routinely be recommended as a precaution,” he says. “In fact, some of the earlier-drilled crops have already reached a height at which spraying would cause physical damage to the plants.
“However, I am evaluating the newly-available Syngenta product, Quilt Xcel, on a few sites. It has been widely used in the USA and could potentially be useful over here. Quilt contains a triazole, which is a chemical growers have been prevented from using to combat fungal diseases for some time, due to other products containing the ingredient being revoked. As it also includes a strobilurin, it should improve greening and have a beneficial effect on yields, even in cases where eyespot does not turn out to be a problem.”
Eyespot is a particular threat because it is virtually impossible to control, once the crop has been infected, he explains. But it only thrives in specific conditions; the leaf has to remain wet for six hours, in order for the spores to take hold.
“2012 was a bad year for maize eyespot and some crops looked as if they had been desiccated, particularly on field perimeters. The plants were more susceptible if they were close to game cover crops, which can harbour the pathogen. But I do not anticipate any major issues this year, because while we have had some rain, the maize has usually had a chance to dry out in between showers.”
Neil Matson of ACT (Associated Central Trading) highlights the plight of dairy farmers, many of whom are facing increased competition from growers who produce maize for biogas digesters.
“Dairy farmers have always regarded maize as a tremendous feedstuff for their herds and extensive research has shown cows respond better to a consistent diet, which encourages healthy rumen function,” says Mr Matson. “They want to feed maize all year round and it is often grown on rented land.
“In some areas, they are finding themselves caught up in a bidding war with biogas maize growers, who have a guaranteed income for their crop and may be able to afford to pay higher rents.”
Richard Millar of Country Crops is based in north west England and points to soil compaction issues on some farms on his patch. He is uncertain whether the main factor responsible is a legacy of two consecutive wet winters, or simply a matter of growers having failed to achieve adequate levels of aeration earlier in the season.
While he concurs crops are generally forward and vigorous, no individual variety stands out at present, although those with early vigour are marginally ahead. He extols the merits of a foliar nutrient application, for giving the plant a greater ability to withstand any stress which might occur over the growing season. Mr Millar recommends his clients apply a product at standard rate, following the 3-4 leaf stages.
“Maize responds particularly well to a nutrient application after establishment, with zinc standing out as producing the most notable response in the post-establishment phase,” says Mr Millar.
“Many growers choose to treat the crop while they are applying herbicide, to minimise the number of passes and reduce fuel and labour input. I usually advise mixing the product at the recommended rate, as it allows the crop to take full advantage of the nutrient boost.”
John Burgess of KWS reports establishment has been exceptionally good at all the company’s trials sites around the country. This compares favourably with other years in recent memory, when some plots have had to be abandoned due to the challenging conditions. Some maize under plastic has been suffering stress as it tries to push up through the material, with high temperatures under the cover ‘roasting’ the plants, resulting in the leaves appearing curled and withered.
Growers can check on regional maize progress by using the KWS free, web-based heat units service. Entering the farm postcode will produce real-time data on the total number of heat units received over the growing season. This will help with decision making and give an indication of the likely harvest date for each variety, according to its maturity rating.