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Hot and dry summer weather took its toll on UK forage crops with eastern region maize showing a range of yield and feeding quality...

Maize 2022: Variable quality but decent energy

Hot and dry summer weather took its toll on UK forage crops with eastern region maize showing a range of yield and feeding quality this harvest.

“Maize growers in the east have been severely affected by drought conditions this summer,” says Neil Groom of forage specialists Grainseed. “It’s been one of the worst years many can remember, not just for maize but for all forage crops.

“But it’s worth remembering that whilst many fields of grass just died after first or second cut was taken, by and large maize has survived and kept going. Even in the parts of the country hit hardest by the drought most growers have something harvestable.”

Yielding 20-42t/ha (8-17t/acre), the first harvests in East Anglia were around two weeks earlier than normal. With cutting now moving west and north, crops away from the real drought regions look reasonable for the main part.

“Many crops were severely scorched and stunted with some only 3ft or so tall. For those growers it has been a salvage job really with cuts taken largely similar to grass silage as cobs, where the concentration of energy is, have just not developed.

“Others have been less affected and although less bulky than usual, good cobs have been produced.

“Where these have been cut to the maturity of the grain, some energy dense forage has resulted because with less stalk and leaf produced, the cob has formed a higher proportion of the silage than usual.”

“For many, there’s no reason why maize crops should not be as good as any other year, but it’s worth bearing in mind some of the lessons learned so far this year. For a start in less than optimum years using an oxygen scavenging silage additive in the clamp is a good idea. 

Winter forage

“Some leaves which died early from scorch or desiccation will have yeasts and moulds due to decay. These could increase in the clamp. The objective has got to be get clamps acidic and anaerobic as quickly.

In these circumstances, Silosolve FC is an ideal choice, says Mr Groom. “It’s a dual-action product with Lactobacillus buchneri strains to promote rapid fermentation to stop any pathogens developing.”

Producers should also be thinking about what they can do to boost home-grown feed usage to address the inevitable forage shortfalls without turning to bought-in feeds, adds Mr Groom.

“Winter forage stocks can be built up by drilling stubble turnips and forage rape a soon as possible to allow youngstock, heifers and dry cows to graze them over the winter, he advises. 

“These could be fed after 12 weeks if soil temperatures remain good through the autumn, however we would favour forage rape as getting stubble turnips to bulk up from a late sowing is more weather dependent.

“Rye, Westerwolds and Italian ryegrass can also be drilled to provide winter grazing and an early bite for the following season.” Looking to the future, dairy and livestock producers have to realise that years like 2022 will become more frequent in the future, says Mr Groom.

“Drilling drought resistant varieties such as Marco, Crosbey and Cathy can help the situation to a certain extent, but building real resilience into a production system relies on making the right management decisions.

“There is no doubt that those growers who drill cover crops, manage their FYM in an optimum manner and prepare seedbeds to minimise moisture loss do much better than others not following these basic practices.” 

Risk management

Jon Myhill, of the Maize Growers Association (MGA), agrees saying whilst nothing can completely eradicate the scorching affects of a really hot and prolonged drought, basic precautions can help.

“The biggest priority now is to consider drilling a cover crop as these should be drilled as early as possible to avoid soil moisture losses after combining.

“These are not only valuable from an environmental perspective, they also help condition the soil ahead of the maize and, depending on the mix of species used, following crops can also benefit from higher nitrogen availability to build long-term resilience.”

Looking to next year’s crop, good cultivations and rolling immediately after drilling will help conserve soil moisture, says Mr Groom. If you are in an area that traditionally has low rainfall, opt for varieties that have proven higher levels of drought tolerance.

On really droughty soils is it worth keeping seed rates down to 85,000-95,000 seeds/ha. A rough seed-bed may be best early on in a colder season. Looser, rougher soil will warm up more quickly when temperatures do start to rise.

Later in the season, when temperatures are higher, a finer tilth will enable better moisture retention and absorption of heat units for speedier germination. Correct use of organic manure is now essential in building a future production strategy for maize, he adds.

“Maize is a hungry crop and needs lots of good nutrition – specifically, potash and fresh phosphate to kickstart germination But as well as providing optimum crop nutrition, organic manure can also benefit soil structure and moisture retention which helps mitigate against drought.

For best results, manures should be incorporated into the soil within 24 hours of application to minimise losses. All these factors help build valuable resilience into a system and give plants the best opportunity of standing up to abiotic stresses such as heat and drought.”