16 April 1999

Maize was the missing key

A Nuffield scholarship led

one North Yorks producer

to realise maize was needed

to boost beef production.

Simon Wragg reports

WHEN Keith Blenkiron accepted a scholarship to visit Holland and America in 1989 to study feeding of beef cattle he realised one essential ingredient was missing from diets at the family run 107ha (265-acre) Lark Hall Farm, near Northallerton – it was maize.

"During the scholarship I was looking at Continental beef cattle kept on slats, fed potatoes, by-products and maize. They were thriving on it. At home we had a similar system except for maize and in 1990 we took the plunge and planted our first crop," says Mr Blenkiron.

A sharp learning curve followed, but maize agronomy has improved and 40ha (110 acres) are grown today. Varieties include Janna, Ulla, Mitilla and Semira.

The maize year starts in autumn. Maize ground receives a herbicide to control couch before Nov 5 when it starts to die back naturally. Starting on heavier ground first and, weather permitting, 56,000 litres/ha (5000gal/acre) of 10% DM cattle slurry is applied. "We run a large 2500gal tanker on wide 550/65 22.5 tyres to reduce compaction. It also cuts the number of road journeys needed," he says.

Some maize area away from the farm will receive poultry litter from the 56,000-bird broiler enterprise. All manures are ploughed in rapidly to reduce risk of both environmental and public concerns.

In mid-March maize ground is cultivated using a power harrow fitted with a packer roller. A second pass completes the seed bed ahead of drilling which starts in late April. Subsoiling is only done where absolutely necessary.

Fertiliser needs are assessed by sampling soils ahead of the drill. "Most ground receives potash at 1cwt/acre to keep soils topped up even after slurries have been applied. Di-ammonium phosphate goes down the spout at drilling. Seed rates are 42,000-45,000 seeds an acre."

The crops spray routine is based on the theory of little and often. "New maize ground receives a pre-emergence application of atrazine at 2 litres/ha. Where continuous maize is grown, it is assessed and a mix of fluroxypyr and bromoxynil may be used to control broad-leaved weeds, followed with atrazine when needed to control grass weeds," says Mr Blenkiron.

Spray timing is critical to reduce risk of scorch. "As the season progresses I often spray in the evenings when it is cool to avoid scorch and we are also looking at low dose techniques. The idea is for us to be in control of weeds and not the other way around."

A top-up N application of 37.5-100kg/ha (30-80 units/acre) is applied where necessary at the two-leaf stage. An inter-row cultivator is used for additional mechanical weed control and to break up soil capping caused by heavy rain. This is done using a converted sugar beet cultivator when conditions and crops allow, usually at the eight-leaf stage. Manganese sulphate may also be applied at 2.5kg/ha (1kg/acre) in a water solution to counter the effect of stress on maize plants.

"We then take a back-seat until harvest in early October. The crop is cut slightly green to get a higher level of plant sugars. Harvesting is completed in two days and top sheets are pushed down clamp walls by hand to a depth of 8-10 inches after levering away maize using a spade. Poultry litter is spread on top to deter rodents," says Mr Blenkiron.

Cheap ration suits mixed bag of finishers

MAIZE is the base ration for 600 beef cattle of traditional breeds drawn from Yorkshire markets and finished at Lark Hall Farm each year.

The cattle are a mixture of all sorts and are only bought if they are likely to make a good margin, explains Keith Blenkiron. "Poorer looking cattle often do as they are bought better. Generally they look badly done to, but we know they will improve on the maize ration," he adds.

Two rations are fed after an initial settling down period. During the first week cattle are offered some maize and plenty of straw to allow the rumen to adjust to the energy dense diet. Beef cross-bred animals receive maize, rapemeal, sugarmeal – a by- product of the sweet industry – and a mineral supplement. Larger framed dairy-bred cattle have wheat added to diets to boost carbohydrate intake for growth.

Cattle are rationed carefully to ensure troughs are cleared daily and are keen for the morning feed. Average daily liveweight gain is 1.25kg a head.

Using maize costed in at £10/t freshweight and home-grown wheat at £75/t, the ration costs about 38p/kg liveweight gain before overheads.

Most cattle are expected to finish in a 180-200 day period and when finished are sent to a Sunderland-based abattoir. Typical carcass grades are R with some O and U+s.

"Our aim is to convert forage energy into beef while reducing both bought-in and on-farm variable costs. Maize is helping achieve this. It gives triple the energy yield an acre of barley and is much cheaper to grow compared with grass silage," says Mr Blenkiron.

The combination of his knowledge of maize husbandry, use in diets and beef output helped Mr Blenkiron win this years MGA national forage maize competition, a title he held once before in 1995. &#42