Since starting to grow ultra-early maize varieties, dairy farmer Tim Lewis has been rewarded with better soil structure, reduced workload at critical times of the year and efficient management of other operations.
For Tim Lewis, who farms Shotford Hall, Harleston, Norfolk, in partnership with his father Gerald and son Josh it is vital the family’s dairy unit integrates with the operation’s other arable enterprises.
The 140-head dairy herd is part of a large mixed farming enterprise, with about 749 hectares (1,850 acres) under arable cultivation, 48ha (118 acres) in two-year grass leys and 40ha (100 acres) of maize.
Although the dairy herd has grown in recent years, constraints on space for new development prohibits significant increase in herd size.
Instead, the emphasis is on increasing production and, through a careful breeding programme, which is managed by long-serving herdsman Robert Warman. Average annual yields have increased by 10 per cent to 10,500 litres/cow over the last decade.
With milk being sold to specialist local dairy producer Marybelle for its milk, yoghurt and cream products, the herd operates a year-round calving system to deliver a consistent supply of milk with maize a key element of its production.
Tim says: “A high-output system needs a consistent supply of high-quality forage, which is why I have always regarded maize as a key constituent in producing high-quality milk.
“Much of the land we farm is in a river valley, with more than 100 acres on the Mendham Marshes. Rather than relying on marsh grass for the long-fibre part of the diet, we stopped using it to produce silage and now it is cut for hay which goes through a tub mixer.
“We still want grass to form a key part of a high-energy diet, so we grow 25 acres of short-term leys specifically for silage and feed it as part of a TMR 365 days of the year.
“The grass is harvested using a forage wagon which allows us to keep chop length longer and the slower filling of the clamp at silaging allows for better consolidation.”
Grass silage is produced using a high-yielding two-year cutting ley, which includes five types of Italian and hybrid rye-grasses – with the deep-rooting varieties in the mix helping to protect against drought.
This also provides a close range of D-value dates that allow precise planning of the first cut and boost water-soluble carbohydrate levels.
Lucerne has also been produced for the last three years with 10ha (25 acres) currently being grown.
“Our dairy consultant originally encouraged us to grow more maize, because traditionally we ran out of maize silage before the new crop was ready,” Tim explains.
“As we fed maize silage throughout summer to supplement the grazing and help maintain consistently high yields, this became more of a problem. In 2007, we built a new 1,500-tonne, threesection clamp and increased the area of maize.”
With specialist advice from Lucy Smith-Reeve at Grainseed, and agronomist Tom Rouse at Agrivice, Lewis Partners has moved progressively towards more early-maturing ‘bred for Britain’ type maize varieties to bring the harvest forward,” Tim says.
“Latterly, our focus has been on selecting early-maturing varieties that we can harvest from September into October.
“This avoids any conflict with sugar beet lifting and ensures that labour is available, while earlier harvesting minimises damage to the soil structure, something we are working hard to avoid by moving towards a controlled traffic farming system.”
The two varieties currently grown are Remington and Ballade.
Ms Smith-Reeve says: “Both of these are ultra-early to mature and allow Tim to harvest earlier, in better conditions, without any significant yield penalty.
“Remington achieves early starch lay down in the cob, has good vigour for rapid establishment, produces a bulky plant with erect, wide leaves which helps maximise photosynthesis, and has excellent lodging resistance.
“Ballade has very good cob maturity, produces good balanced silage which is ideal where a high forage intake is required, is suitable for a wide range of sites, and has real on-farm consistency.”
Tim explains most of the land destined for the crop is cleaned up with glyphosate and then farmyard manure is applied before ploughing, usually in November.
“We also have 25 acres of over-wintered stubbles as part of our Higher Level Stewardship commitment where slurry is applied in spring, then worked in before the maize is drilled, usually in May at 4in deep and a seed rate of 42,000 per acre,” he says.
Fertiliser comprises DAP down the spout at drilling, followed by pre-emergence application of a 27N (30SO3), granulated product which combines ammonium sulphate and ammonium nitrate, then nitrogen is applied in the form of ammonium nitrate (34.5 per cent N) when the crop emerges, giving a total of 150 kg/ha N.
Harvesting maize starts during September once the dry matter reaches 29 to 32 per cent.
“It is impossible to over-state the importance of maize, and growing ultra-early varieties has represented a significant step forward in allowing us to develop our overall farming system by benefiting both the dairying and arable sides of the business,” Tim says.