In the first of the 2015 Maize Matters series, we review last year and offer some advice on varietal choice.
Growers are hoping for a repeat of the bumper harvest associated with the 2014 season, which will be a hard act to follow, says John Burgess of KWS. Varieties across the board produced bumper yields under the under ‘almost unlimited’ growing conditions, he says.
“It is hard to be negative about last year, but it did leave some growers with storage problems and many still have crops from last season. There were also reports of low starch levels; when yields are very high, starch content will be diluted. But overall, very few growers will have been disappointed.”
Plant breeders have responded to the burgeoning demand for early varieties and there is a wide selection to choose from. However, Mr Burgess advises growers to exercise caution when evaluating a variety using its FAO number, which indicates maturity date.
“I would always recommend UK growers limit their choices to varieties with a maximum FAO of 260, as we have insufficient heat units to permit very late ripening. There can be as much as seven to eight weeks difference between a variety with an FAO of 150 to one with an FAO of 260, for example.
“The later-maturing types are not suitable for forage and although they may be used for biogas crops on light land in low rainfall areas, yields will be under threat, especially if conditions turn cool and wet in late season.”
The high fresh weight yields which typified the 2014 harvest will have depleted soil nutrients, he points out.
“It may be worthwhile to check soil indices and correct any deficiencies. Maize is a hungry crop and harvest will remove large quantities of all the major nutrients. On average, every 40 tonnes of maize will remove about 230kg/hectare of potash. This must be replaced, for the crop to realise its yield potential. A similar principle applies to phosphate, although off take levels are not quite as high.”
Growers are always looking to make savings on input costs, but careful judgement is required, for best results.
“Attempting to make savings by reducing fertiliser applications is false economy. If cold weather prevails this spring, crops will come under stress and that is when a lack of nutrients will compromise both yield and quality. But rates can be cut slightly, if modern machinery is used to place products in close proximity to the seed, for more efficient utilisation.
“When it comes to cutting seed costs, it would be better to marginally reduce rates for the newer, high-performing varieties, than to choose a cheaper option which has become outclassed.”
While it is to be hoped this growing season will be a repeat of last year, he recommends growers should avoid making any assumptions.
“I suggest a five-year average should be taken, rather than making decisions based solely on the previous season. Growers should seek professional advice and take their time, before ordering seed.
“Dairy farmers who are looking for high ME and starch levels might want to make these traits a priority when making their choice. However, as a general rule, a variety that has given good performance in the past suits the local area and will probably produce similar results again,” says Mr Burgess.
Francis Dunne of Field Options says 2014 was a very forgiving season, producing some tremendous crops countrywide. Growers will have high expectations this year, he says, but they should take care when selecting varieties.
“A variety which performed well in 2014 is only really worthwhile if it produced pleasing results in 2012, which was a very challenging season,” says Mr Dunne. “Outstanding among the very early varieties last year were Sergio (KWS) and Activate (Limagrain), along with Rodriguez (KWS), although the latter is seven-10 days later.
“All three showed excellent vigour, especially Sergio, which appeared to be turbo-charged and also stood up well in 2012. While Activate did not score on visual appearance, it produced crops of exceptionally high quality. Rodriguez gave consistently high yields and did not dry down too quickly. It also excelled in grain trials and looked good in the field; this trait has no technological merit, but growers do like to see a healthy crop.”
Mr Dunne is a firm believer in using a starter fertiliser, to optimise establishment. It should ideally contain essential micro-nutrients like boron and zinc, as well as nitrogen, phosphate and sulphur, he advises.
“Last year’s favourable conditions allowed some room for error in maize growing, but most parts of the UK experienced a cool, wet start and there was a clear visual response to starter fertiliser.
“Plants take nutrients primarily through their roots, so it makes sense to place fertiliser as close as possible to this area. Four out of the last five seasons had cool wet periods after planting and maize seedlings showed signs of stress and associated nutrient deficiency.
“It is claimed foliar feed gives a boost in the early growth stages, but leaf area index is also low at that time and most of the spray goes on the ground. With dairy farm incomes under serious pressure, milk producers will need to focus on the inputs that bring guaranteed returns. I’m not sure foliar fertiliser always falls into that category,” he says.
Historically, livestock producers have grown two or three maize crops and followed with a grass ley and then perhaps a wholecrop cereal, says Mr Burgess. But in recent years, some of the larger dairy farmers have had maize grown by arable contractors using rented land.
“For maize to be financially viable as a cash crop, it needs to fit into an arable rotation and therefore the grower will be under pressure to harvest early, to allow time for the drilling of winter cereals,” he says. “This contract-growing of maize is set to push up yields, as more modern and larger equipment can increase both accuracy and timeliness.
“Quite understandably, the poor autumn sowing conditions in 2012 and 2013 added to contract growers’ concerns and ever-earlier varieties are being sought. We also expect the maize acreage to increase, in response to the Basic Payment Scheme’s three crop rule.”
Growers may wish to take advantage of the KWS soil temperature service, a free, web-based application which offers daily updates on soil temperatures, to improve the timeliness of field operations.
To benefit from the service, growers enter their farm postcode, to find the local soil temperature range at 10cm soil depth. Information on surface temperatures is also provided, to highlight any risk of frost. The service is updated weekly and runs from April to October.
Crops require a minimum of 8degC for germination and temperatures should be rising for three to four consecutive days, before drilling should be considered. Growers with heavy soils are advised to wait until temperatures reach 12degC, to promote emergence. Research has shown soil temperature continues to have a major effect on growth up to the four to five leaf stage, when air temperature becomes more critical.