2 March 2001

MAIZE STILL DELIVERS GOODS

Starting to grow maize in

the worst year for the crop

in many has failed to

dampen the enthusiasm for

it on one marginal maize

farm. Jeremy Hunt reports

DESPITE last winters protracted harvest, maizes performance means it will continue to replace whole-crop as the second forage for cows on a Lancs unit.

The Hull family had reservations about growing maize on low-lying peat, so when last autumns crop was drenched with months of torrential rain they feared the worst.

The first 5.5ha (13 acres) of maize was harvested in October. In terms of yield and feed value it gave an encouraging hint at the capability of the crop.

But it was late December before the last acres were grabbed from frost-hardened ground. Cobs were sprinkled with snow, but maize was used immediately and since then the familys 120-cow Holstein herd has never looked back.

Jimmy and Nancy Hull, who farm with sons Andrew and Leslie at Gibstick Hall Farm, Winmarleigh, near Garstang, brought in independent nutritionist Paul Findley to overhaul the herds diet two years ago.

It was Mr Findley who recommended switching from a total mixed ration based on whole-crop wheat to one based on maize. "Everyone may be buzzing about whole-crop and while it is good for cow health, it cant match maize on its ability to produce milk," says Mr Findley.

Whole-crops starch level of 12-13% is barely half that of maize at 25%-30%. "Not only does maize have twice as much starch as whole-crop, but it is a different type which by-passes the rumen. And while we are led to believe theres a broad window in which to take whole-crop, in reality I believe the opportunity for achieving optimum feed value is much narrower. We dont yet know when that window is," says Mr Findley.

He became involved with the Hulls Fortland herd when whole-crop produced as a second wheat was failing to maintain winter milk yields.

Noticed a difference

"Normally we would have made enough whole-crop to last us until August. Last year we were short and ran out in mid-May and we certainly noticed a difference," says Jimmy.

Cows had to wait until early October before they had their first taste of the new crop of maize. Because milkers had been without a second forage in their diet for several months, the response to maize inclusion was slower than expected. But as winter progressed the herd showed a marked improvement in terms of both cow condition and milk output.

"We had never considered maize because we always felt it would be too difficult to harvest on this low-lying, peaty ground. But with new ideas on harvesting dates and early varieties it had started to look possible," explains Jimmy.

The 16ha (40 acre) crop was drilled on May 6 using four varieties – Justina, Ulla, Pretty and Semura. Maize was still green in early October and ideally needed another 10 days to produce a high dry matter crop. The first cut yielded 45t/ha (18t/acre) but the decision was taken to allow the crop another few days. And then came the rain.

"With hindsight, we should have cut the lot. But who was to know that we would be facing the wettest autumn on record. Our annual rainfall last year was 51in compared with our usual average of 40in," says Andrew.

Crop deemed fairly easy

Another small block of maize was harvested in early December with the remainder not being cut until the back end of the month.

On reflection, despite harvesting problems which were exacerbated by heavy rain, the crop was deemed very easy in comparison to growing whole-crop as a forage. It received 125kg/ha (50kg/acre) of ammonium phosphate in the seed-bed. Leslie reckons it was growing 30cm (1ft) a week during mid-summer.

"We were tempted to go again with some fertiliser, but were advised against it. We resisted and its clear now that it simply didnt need it," he adds.

Despite the protracted harvesting period the crop has comfortably delivered the target requirement of 20kg a day for the cows winter diet.