By Shirley Macmillan

PROVIDING SOIL temperatures are at least 8C, maize growers with drier soils should be able to consider drilling from the second week of April.

 “On lighter soils, drilling could be in the second week of April for growers seeking a high quality crop,” says Maize Growers Association”s agronomist Simon Draper.

 “However, for most the sensible option would be mid-April onwards. And growers wanting bulk should wait until the third week.”

The BBC Monthly outlook weather forecast currently suggests average amounts of sunshine and rainfall with temperatures below average for the second week in April. In the third week in April it predicts cloudy conditions, without night frosts.

Frosts as late as May can kill a proportion of plants, admits Mr Draper. To compensate, he suggests upping seed rates to 116,000/ha (47,000/acre) when drilling early. “It”s an extra cost but repaid in yield.”

However, early drilling will bring harvest forward by two weeks benefitting those in the Entry Level Stewardship scheme who need to manage maize areas next winter to prevent soil erosion, explains Mr Draper. Drilling early also means overall bulk yields will be 3% lower than a May-drilled crop because further cold spells can set back plant growth. However, starch yields should lift by 10%.

Yet drilling will only be early for growers who have already bought seed. Usually a job done by March, many growers are still choosing varieties 2-3 weeks before drilling, says consultant John Morgan of Creedy Associates.

 He believes reluctance could be down to uncertainty surrounding single farm payment. “But leaving it so late could lead to problems with deliveries.”

 Mr Draper thinks this season”s hike in seed prices is also putting many off. “There is quite a big difference compared with last year – another 10 a bag at the top of the list.”

 For those still considering seed purchases, he advises against equating a difference in price with a difference in yield and points out variety choice has less impact in a good growing area.

“It”s worth paying extra for a better variety in a poorer area.” But savings are possible in fertiliser. Fields that had muck applications over winter should be tested for nutrient status, adds Mr Draper. “Make full use of the nutrients supplied and drop bag nitrogen accordingly. The savings are considerable – it takes 70/ha of bag fertiliser to grow a crop, but using muck can drop this to 20-30/ha.”

Sussex-based milk producer Tim Gue agrees muck can be relied on. He won”t be using starter fertiliser on the 81ha (200 acres) of maize he is drilling this year to feed 300 cows plus followers.

 Farming in southern England with good soils and south-facing fields, Mr Gue says he is usually able to drill early and aims to have maize in as soon after April 8 as possible, depending on soil conditions.

 “We harvest by Sept 20 and only have one field that tends to give problems with erosion, so we plough across it, harvest at a sensible time and always follow it with a wheat crop.”

He will also be mixing two varieties in the drill, having experienced success last year. Choosing two of the same maturity and similar height ensures even feed in the clamp, he says. “Growing two varieties also spreads risk as some are more susceptible to diseases than others.”

shirley.macmilllan@rbi.co.uk BOX * Drill early, harvest early * 50/ha fertiliser savings * Use better varieties on poor ground