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Dairy and livestock producers should consider replacing slow-growing silage leys with drought tolerant maize without delay to avoid forage shortfalls this winter. Drought-hit grassland could benefit from forage maize

Dairy and livestock producers should consider replacing slow-growing silage leys with drought tolerant maize without delay to avoid forage shortfalls this winter.

“It’s time to make some bold decisions,” says Neil Groom of forage specialists Grainseed. “Grass has not grown much in recent weeks because of the cold and dry spring and prospects for first cut are not looking good.

“Last year, first cut was early because it was so hot and the problems arose after this as it then turned dry so subsequent cuts were poor because there was no regrowth on them.

“In contrast, this year’s first cut has probably been delayed by around three weeks compared to 2020 because we are so far behind with heat units and the effects of the current spring drought and frosts which have made matters much worse.”

A light first cut followed by poor subsequent ones is a real possibility for many now with very low tonnages of grass silage being produced for the coming winter, he believes.

“With this in mind, it’s actually worth considering spraying off a portion of the worst-hit swards and replacing these with more drought tolerant maize.

“It may sound drastic, but that way you’re going to get the potential of a single cut in September or early October that’s going to give you on average 17t/acre of forage at 32% drymatter and 30% starch.

“There’s going to be more energy and feed value in that one crop of maize than some lightweight second, third, fourth and even fifth cuts of grass combined.

“Plus, if the lack of rainfall persists, the ability of maize to thrive with much less water than grass means it will still deliver much needed forage stocks when swards start to die back.”

Replacing grass

Where the situation looks particularly bad, growers should consider replacing up to 25% of their silage land with maize, says Mr Groom.

“You need to assess it on a field by field basis. If a field has a two-year old Italian ryegrass  ley in it, it’s going to be thin by now anyway, so that could certainly be a candidate for replacing with maize.

“Similarly, longer terms leys could have more weed grasses in them than the original rye grasses sown and this will reduce both palatability and feed value. These are worth considering.

“You need to get out there, make an assessment of ground cover and how long the leys have been down and take out your weakest ones.”

As far as maize drilling is concerned, Mr Groom recommends a drought tolerant variety like Marco. “In the east of the country, that should be ready to cut by the 10 October and then, if you’re well organised, you can drill new grass seed in straight behind that.

Weed control

“It’s important to get early weed control right ahead of the maize. If you don’t have the chance to use a pre-emergence herbicide, then control any weeds post-emergence when they are still at the cotyledon stage.

“That way you’ll be ensuring all the water and nutrients remain available for the maize crop and have not been used up growing weeds.”

Cultivations can make an important contribution to soil water conservation too, he says.

“Rather than ploughing your chosen swards up, use something like a Sumo Trio cultivator with deep tines and a packer roller so you’re moving the soil and then compressing it rather than exposing the moisture contained to the air.

“The other thing is to check is pH. A lot of grassland can be below 6.5 so you need to correct that and apply as much FYM and slurry as you can to really give the maize as good a start as possible. Correct soil pH is also important to aid nutrient uptake and placement fertilisers with the drill will be beneficial, particularly if you are at index 2 or below for P.

“Placement fertilisers will also help produce a bigger root system earlier and this allows the plant to access as much water as possible as the crop grows.”

Making decisions on realistic forage production after first cut in May allows a more diverse range of forage options to be planned, he says.