How growers can produce maize and protect environment

Maize is a crop often perceived to be damaging to the environment, causing issues such as soil compaction, erosion and nutrient losses, which can lead to run-off, affecting nearby watercourses.

A “maize charter”, pioneered by the Maize Growers Association, is aiming to tackle concerns, by providing field evaluations to encourage best practice when it comes to growing the crop.

The Maize Growers Association (MGA) Maize Charter project was launched in 2017.

See also: 6 top maize growing tips to help livestock producers

Maize Charter project

It was designed to help farmers carry out field-by-field assessments to determine maize production suitability, based on a score that incorporates risk factors such as soil type, likely drilling and harvest date, as well as altitude and aspect of the field.

Based on that score, the charter then provides advice on the most suitable varieties, with the overall aim of de-risking growing the crop, explains John Morgan, consultant at Devon-based Creedy Associates, which provides technical support to the MGA.

“If we know it’s a high-risk field for soil erosion, for example, the charter will direct growers towards very early maturing varieties that should be ready for harvest in September, rather than October or November.

“Maize grown in the right field has very strong environmental credentials – it has low nutrient and agri-chemical use. It’s part of the solution as I often say.

“But maize grown in the wrong fields poses all sorts of risks, including soil compaction at harvest and then subsequent soil erosion and run-off linked to rainfall over the winter.”

This is on top of the management-type problems such as heavy tractors driving on weak, wet soils late in the autumn – normally around harvest time – as well as the overapplication of nutrients, he adds.

“My take is that we can tackle all of the issues by responsible maize growing – and the Maize Charter is one of the tools that can help growers do that.”

Since the launch of the MGA Maize Charter in 2017, projects have been completed across Wiltshire, Dorset and Cornwall, and over this time has grown to incorporate nutrient management planning in a bid to reduce issues with phosphorus in watercourses too, explains Mr Morgan.

“In the right place, [phosphorus] is great, but in the wrong place it’s bad news in that it encourages algal blooms and eutrophication in watercourses.

“So we started adding a section on nutrient management to the charter, looking at soil indexes and phosphorus supply, via manures and fertilisers, to try and balance the two.”

Sussex partnership

Most recently, a partnership between the MGA and South East Water enabled a charter to be rolled out in the East Sussex region.

The East Sussex Maize Charter involved six farms, with a full maize charter completed for five of them – equivalent to a total maize area of 190ha.

Dairy farmer Chris Appleton is among those involved. He also has a long-standing relationship with South East Water, working closely over recent years to improve maize production and minimise soil losses at Primrose Farm, near Arlington, while also protecting local watercourses.

The farm is home to a 450-head herd of autumn block-calving Holstein-Friesian cows.

They are grazed through the summer and housed over winter, fed on a diet of predominantly grass and maize forage. Most of the maize, 73ha, is grown on-farm with the rest grown on contract locally.

The relationship with South East Water began about five years ago, explains Mr Appleton.

“We started off experimenting with different cover crops, trying to establish what worked and what didn’t.

“The express aim at the beginning for us was just trying to establish green cover and to work out what the best way of doing that was.”

Funding for this was provided by South East Water, he adds. About three years ago, Mr Appleton then moved on to experiment with undersowing maize crops with Italian ryegrass, again supported by South East Water.

“This was also to try to get a more certain green cover across the fields over winter.”

With the combined support from the water company and the MGA, Mr Appleton says they have been able to take that one step further and now either undersow or oversow – or a combination of both – all of their maize ground.

Last year, the farm also invested in a strip-till cultivator. “We’ve got the aim of establishing green cover figured out, so now we’re trying to look at how we can minimise the work that goes into establishing our maize crops in the spring,” says Mr Appleton.

Nutrient gains

The primary aim of all of these measures is to hold onto soil and nutrients better, to the benefit of both the farm and the River Cuckmere, which runs through the middle of the land, he adds.

“We’re also about half a mile upstream from Arlington reservoir. So there’s a benefit for South East Water because if [soil and nutrients] stay in our fields, then they don’t have to clean it up.”

Though he has arguably been taking steps to protect soils and the watercourses for some time, Mr Appleton believes the biggest advantage of being part of the charter is the advice and guidance provided by the MGA.

“None of what we’re doing is particularly new or groundbreaking, but it has been really helpful having John Morgan, in particular, on the other end of an email to pick his brain about what we’re doing.

“The combination of the MGA and South East Water has been really beneficial.”

And further changes to the farm have been made as a result of the charter.

“A successful maize season for us starts off before we’ve even put anything in the ground,” explains Mr Appleton.

“It begins the previous autumn, making sure we’ve got good green cover, but the next step is selecting earlier maturing varieties.”

Over the past four years, the farm has moved to growing predominately Group 9 varieties, and now with advice from the MGA, Mr Appleton is going to have a go with some Group 11 types too this year.

The driver behind this ensures crops are drilled by the end of April and harvested in September to avoid travelling at the wetter times of the year.

This minimises the risk of soil issues, as well as allowing ample time to establish green cover while conditions are still favourable.

“The earlier we can get it drilled, provided conditions are right, sets us up to harvest as early as we reasonably can at the other end of the season.”

This has proven to be a particularly beneficial strategy in some of the higher risk fields, which were identified as part of the charter.

Mr Appleton adds that conditions dictate drilling and harvesting over date, and the MGA stresses that earlier is not always better.

“We have found that with our strip-tilling, the fields stand up a lot better now to heavy machinery, so that helps too [with drilling and harvesting earlier]. We’re seeing a lot less soil compaction and damage now.”

In terms of how all of this has affected watercourses, anecdotally Mr Appleton says he now notices water running off fields is near enough clear, highlighting the reduction in soil erosion that these measures have made.

“This is particularly noticeable in fields where we would have traditionally seen soil wash. Now we don’t.”

Future plans

Over the past few years, the farm has been carrying out fairly comprehensive soil analysis work and Mr Appleton says this is something he wants to continue.

This will help yield some concrete data on if and what benefits the changes to his farm are having on soil. Building on the success of his strip-tilling, he is also looking to experiment with precision slurry application this year.

“Most of the muck on the farm was already applied through a dribble bar or a trailing shoe – some sort of low-emission applicator. But this year, we’re looking at whether or not we can inject the slurry into the row as we drill it.”

Mr Appleton adds that he will also be continuing to “fiddle” with nutrient applications, seed rates and row spacing as he believes there is still more he can do to improve the efficiency of his maize growing.

In terms of working with organisations such as South East Water and the MGA, Mr Appleton says it is really important and beneficial to continue to get different viewpoints to understand what is sustainable for different parties and perhaps prompt a mindset change, where needed.

“There’s no doubt we started off with practices – such as winter ploughing – that are very different to what we do now.

“I think the UK dairy industry would fall apart without maize as an energy feed – we can’t afford not to find a way of growing it sustainably and responsibly,” he says.

“If we don’t, then ultimately the way it will go is that [farmers] will be banned from growing it. So that is the key driver behind everything we’re trying to do here. As a business, I’m not sure what we’d replace it with.”

Mr Morgan says he hopes to extend the charter further, too. “I’m currently in conversations with Welsh Water about doing more this spring. [The charter] is there and is a tool that’s ready to go and ready to be used.”

The latest maize trials and research work will be discussed at the Maize Growers Association annual conference at Reading University on Wednesday 8 February.

Need a contractor?

Find one now

Explore more / Transition

This article forms part of Farmers Weekly’s Transition series, which looks at how farmers can make their businesses more financially and environmentally sustainable.

During the series we follow our group of 16 Transition Farmers through the challenges and opportunities as they seek to improve their farm businesses.

Transition is an independent editorial initiative supported by our UK-wide network of partners, who have made it possible to bring you this series.

Visit the Transition content hub to find out more.