An increase in cow numbers and the desire to have sufficient maize to ensure year round feeding meant the Roberts family had to fundamentally review their approach to growing the crop. Jeremy Hunt reports.
A north Wales dairy farm milking 430 cows and which is heavily reliant on maize silage undertook an overhaul of the agronomy of the 2016 crop which resulted in a massive increase in average yield from 15 tonnes to 21 tonnes per acre.
Maize specialist Ian Grandfield stepped in to improve the performance of the maize crop on Dewi and Rhian Roberts’ Bod Ynys Farm in the Vale of Clwyd at Rhewl, near Ruthin, and it resulted in a bumper yield of around 2310 tonnes.
“The crop never looked back from the time it emerged nine days after being drilled during the first week of May,” says Dewi Roberts who farms with sons Phylip and Matthew.
During 2016 the herd increased from 300-430 cows and with expansion came an even greater need to produce more maize. The maize silage comprises 50% of the forage included in the TMR diet which is fed all year round. Maize has been grown for almost 20 years on the farm which comprises Grade 3 land.
“We felt we could get more from our maize crop and brought in agronomist Ian Grandfield of Green Gem Agriculture to advise us and see where we could make improvements,” says Dewi. “Although 2015 was a poor growing season, I felt the crop should have been better which is why we called in some specialist advice for 2016.” Seedbed preparation is done by the Roberts family and a contractor is used for drilling and harvesting.
“We didn’t want to put the crop in too early in spring 2016 because it was very wet, so it was May 5 before we drilled. We used a sub-soiler this year on the advice of Ian Grandfield and increased our drilling rate to 50,000 compared with our usual 42,500,” he explains. For the first time the seedbed also received additional nitrogen. “The crop germinated within nine days of being drilled and never really looked back,” adds Mr Roberts.
Previous years had seen problems in some fields with perennial black bindweed, but in 2016 the affected fields received a second post-emergence herbicide treatment of Fluroxypyr. Another ‘first’ was the application of the urea-based foliar feed Efficie-N-t 28 at the end of June at a cost of about £12/acre.
Harvesting started on October 10. “We reckon we averaged 21-23 tonnes an acre compared with being under 15 tonnes in previous years. I know the weather was on our side but we had never had a massive maize crop like this.
“I weighed one cob and it was 230g. We didn’t leave very much stalk because it’s important that we harvest as much of the maize as we can so that we have enough to feed it well into the autumn of the following year and avoid having to use newly made maize silage too soon.”
The herd has reached 430 head this year in the latest phase of expansion. Being housed all year round means the Roberts family aim for a consistent year round diet and need plenty of maize to achieve that. “The TMR diet comprises 20kg each of grass silage and maize silage plus 8kg 27% protein blend, 3kg caustic wheat, 0.5kg bread and 1kg molasses.
“For us maize is a very important part of our cows’ diet. It gives us the consistency and stability that we need in our TMR. We know we can go into the clamp and be sure of the quality we’ll take out. The main thing for us is to be able to give the cows 20kg of maize silage every day of the year rather than running out of it and having to feed wholecrop.
“It’s the diet stability that maize gives us that is so important instead of having to keep chopping and changing. If a system has a consistent diet so that we can rely on it all the year round, there’s time to keep on top of other parts of herd management,” he says.
An extra 130 cows have been put on this year. The herd is milked three times a day through a 28:28 herringbone and has an average yield of just over 10,800 litres with daily average production at 32-36kg. No cake is fed in the parlour.
"The weather was very good during 2016 and that helped, but Ian Grandfield’s agronomy made a huge difference. Now we feel we can apply the same consistent agronomy in future years and are in a much more confident position even if the weather is against us.”
There has been a big investment in dairy farming made by the Roberts family, but Dewi Roberts is confident about the long-term future for milk production.
“If you can take out your concerns from one part of the management equation – as we feel we now have with the maize – and not have to worry about it, you can focus on some of the other things that influence your margins.
“All milk producers are going to have to learn to live with market volatility, but anything that introduces stability into the business is a huge bonus. We now feel our new approach to growing maize will contribute to that stability,” he adds.
Changing his seed variety and applying nitrogen to the seedbed, effective weed control and the use of a ureabased foliar feed mid-season are the key elements of the significant increase in yield at Bod Ynys Farm, says maize specialist Ian Grandfield of Green Gem Agriculture.
“This was a farm that was increasing its maize acreage to feed more cows but just not getting big enough yields – and in a situation where year round consistency of cow diets for a housed herd was absolutely essential.
“Combined with slurry, FYM and additional nitrogen, the seedbed received a total of 143kg per ha and we switched the variety to Agiraxx which is high yielding, but more significantly produces enormous cobs and subsequently a big starch yield.
Mr Grandfield always recommends a mid-season foliar feed of slow release nitrogen to ensure the crop doesn’t become ‘hungry’. “The nitrogen can easily disappear especially if there is a wet spell in mid-summer, so applying nitrogen at the four to five feet stage will guarantee it will be taken up by the crop and available for cob development – in August the crop needs 35% of its nitrogen demand,” he says.