The Little brothers are increasing their acreage of maize to help spread forage production risks and push yields over 10,000kg/cow/day on their Cumbrian farm. Farmers Guardian reports.
Although on the margins of where maize production has historically been thought consistent and reliable, Stephen and Mike Little, of Kirkbride House, Kirkbride, are planning to double their area of the crop this year.
With an expanding contracting business alongside a 200-strong commercial milking herd and a 500kW digester to feed, maize lies at the heart of much of their business management.
Stephen says: “We actually started growing maize in 1972 and have become more and more reliant on it as the years have progressed.
“One of the biggest developments in recent years has been the introduction of plastic to start the crop off and the availability of high yielding varieties to get the most out of this approach.
“As such, maize has undoubtedly become a more reliable and easier crop for us to manage and is the ideal complement to our grass production.
“A key benefit is that it helps spread harvest dates and risks when weather and growing conditions are not quite as perfect as you would like them to be.”
The farm’s 200 commercial milkers are housed all-year-round, with 275–300 youngstock on the farm at any one time.
Feeding is based on a single total mixed ration currently with a 60:40 grass to maize forage mix as its foundation, with 7.5kg/cow/day of a soya blend and 3kg/cow/day of rolled barley added.
The herd’s yield currently stands at 9,300kg/cow/year but, with the additional maize planned, hopes are to take this to over 10,000kg/cow/day, Stephen explains.
“At the moment we are growing about 70 acres of maize but will be adding another 70 acres this year from some rented land and take the forage ratio to 50:50 maize to grass.
“We can also then start to include maize in the digester ration, where we are sure it will bring benefits.”
Ideally, the maize follows a three- to four-year grass ley, Mike points out, with farmyard manure and digestate from the farm’s digester used for nutrition.
“We will aim to spray off all the maize land mid-March to get rid of any weeds and then try to plough early April so we can get the crop in mid- to late-April.
“We usually drill at 40,000 seeds/acre and keep an eye out for any weeds which might mean we need to apply a second herbicide, but apart from a little bit of foliar N, that is pretty much it.”
Variety choice is informed by on-farm trials carried out by Agrovista and Grainseed to establish which varieties will make best use of the farm’s location and the use of plastic when growing the crop.
In recent years, varieties like Hobbit and Marco have performed well under the film consistently delivering freshweight yields approaching 50 tonnes/hectare (20t/acre) at the target 30 per cent dry matter and 28-29 per cent starch content.
The key thing is to get a variety which will produce enough yield to fill the clamp while finishing fully to produce the starch content needed to drive milk production all within a reasonable harvest window, says Stephen.
“We want to be harvesting in October, and as we are contractors looking after another 1,250 acres of maize in addition to our own, we often end up cutting our own crop a little later than we would like to.
“Even with the plastic, the wrong variety could mean we are running into November for harvest and that is where the real problems begin.”
Once harvested, the maize is clamped with an innoculant additive and an oxygen barrier used in addition to the main sheet.
“The great thing about maize, is that if you get the basic management decisions right, you need one good day to harvest it and you know you should be okay for winter.
“With grass, you have got all the fertiliser applications plus you need four decent stretches of good weather at various times through the year to bring it in.
“Conditions can vary greatly from year-to-year up here, so growing maize alongside the grass gives us that extra bit of security from a management point of view and provides added flexibility with rations so we know we can get the most out of the cows.”
Simon Nelson, of Agrovista, says: “We run three to four trials in Cumbria and south west Scotland each year as there are very specific requirements for maize growing in the area and not all varieties perform well under plastic.
“Plastic is pretty much essential up here if you are serious about your maize. If you have lots of spare acres, light and sandy soil which allows you to harvest in to November, if needed, and some
sheltered fields, then you might be lucky in some years and get away without it.
“But if you require the type of consistent yields and quality which you can build a business around, you need to consider plastic really.”
In the trials last year, the group 6 variety Dutop produced the highest freshweight yield on the farm at 85t/ha (34t/acre) with a drymatter yield of 21t/ha (8.7t/acre).
The variety Cluedo was in second spot with a freshweight yield of 70t/ha (28t/acre) and a drymatter yield of 18t/ha (7t/acre).