Why grain maize could be a profitable spring cropping option

Grain maize could be a profitable spring option for growers this season, with expected net margins of £914/ha, thanks to growing market demand.

After the winter washout wreaked havoc on winter cropping, the pressure is on spring-sown crops to bring land back into production and provide a substantial return.

See also: Why leaf layer emergence is key to accurate fungicide use

With spring seed in short supply, the growing grain maize market – which has plenty of seed availability and a drilling window from end of April to May – is becoming an increasingly attractive option.

Grain maize prices are expected to be about £15/t below feed wheat, plus an extra premium is on offer for selected markets, which means the crop could yield a healthy return.


The UK market for grain maize is greater than 1m tonnes a year, with two main end markets:

  1. Livestock feed market – red spindle varieties
  2. Premium market for pet food and wild bird feed – white spindle varieties

Simon Montgomery, technical team lead at seed firm Field Options (part of Procam agronomy), notes variety choice is key when it comes to market use.

“The pet food sector and other specialist markets pay a premium for white spindle varieties without anthocyanin pigmentatin, while red spindle varieties are grown for crimping and livestock feed.

“Colouration of the maize cob when selling into the premium market can otherwise lead to crop rejections,” he says.

Simon recommends growers to consider the value and benefits of grain maize, particularly with current soil conditions delaying early drillers.

“Grain maize is an excellent break crop in the arable rotation, providing good grassweed control, healthy margins and a great soil conditioning opportunity with the return of plenty of organic matter to the soil,” he says.

Drying grain 

However, one of the biggest challenges associated with grain maize is drying grain down to 14-15% moisture – ideally within 48 hours after harvest.

“Aflatoxin contamination is the main reason grain maize gets rejected. This is caused when heaped grain gets hot, allowing populations of Aspergillus flavus to build up,” says Simon.

Adequate drying capacity is required to avoid grain heating up in large heaps, where microtoxins can take hold.

A continuous flow-type dryer with a high air capacity or a grain drying floor is required, with a low heat capability to avoid high temperatures, which can otherwise cause “caramelisation” of starch.

“Drying grain maize down to 14-15% is a similar way in which you would dry beans,” he adds. This will typically use 50 litres of kerosene a tonne.

Establishment and variety selection

Grain maize should be planted from late April onwards when soil temperatures are warming – the earlier, the better, but soil temperature and condition is key.

The crops can successfully be planted up until the end of May, which may come as a welcome relief for growers who are pressured with a hefty spring workload, once soils eventually dry out.

A lower seed rate of 89,000-94,000 seeds/ha can be used for grain maize rather than 103,000-111,000 seeds/ha for forage maize.

This helps ensure optimum light interception, heat units and nutrients to promote cob numbers per plant.

When it comes to variety choice, selecting those which mature early enough to fit into the wider arable rotation and workload is important.

Varieties must also have a cob sheath that fully covers the cob.

Having a cob that protrudes from the sheath, known as “snouting”, could cause fusarium, mycotoxin infection and rot.

Simon notes that any large grained variety can be used for livestock feed as long as it has an FAO number of 220 and below.

“Large grained varieties are easier to thrash, dry, or crimp. Agagold’s FAO of 220 is as late as you would want to go,” he says.

Varieties with an FAO less than 180 will be ready for harvest at 32% moisture by late September, depending on location and planting date.

“When planting crops at a lower seed rate, FAO is compensated for because of the reduced competition for light, space, nutrients and heat units.

“A FAO of 220 is around 180 when planted at a lower seed root,” explains Simon.

Crimped grain maize for silage

Crimped grain maize is a high-energy feedstock for beef and dairy cattle, supplying 14-14.5MJ/kg of dry matter.

It is also an ideal substitute for wheat in livestock rations, at 65% dry matter.

Hybrid varieties for the premium pet food market that meet the top specification include the very early maturing varieties Prospect and Rodriguez, alongside early varieties LG30.179 and Agagold.

Varieties for the livestock market include P7179, P7326, P7381 and Liroyal.

Other important selection criteria include standing power, disease resistance, grain dry down and, of course, grain yield.


Growers can expect a harvest date about 10 days later than forage maize.

The crop should be cut when the leaves are green at 30-33%. Any higher moisture and the damp silk on the maize cob can block combine sieves.

“A specialist torpedo grain maize header is required, which pulls the crop in, rips off the cob and thrashes it. Using a conventional combine header will result in huge yield losses.

“Beneath the torpedo header, rotating knives chop the remaining plant material into a mulch, which is a great soil conditioner,” says Simon.

“If you grow a 10t/ha crop, at least 50% of this is given back to the soil in a beautiful mulch, which protects the soil over winter, gives soil a great organic matter boost and provides a habitat for winter birdlife.”

What’s more, the mulch acts as a carpet for the combine to travel on, reducing compaction risks and creates a great seed-bed to direct-drill into.

However, accessing the correct grain maize header can be a drawback, but more and more contractors are adding this to their machinery kit lists.

Alternatively, growers can opt for private hire, notes Simon.

Net margin comparison of spring crops


Maize silage

Grain maize

Crimp maize

Spring barley

Spring wheat

Total income (£/ha)






Total variable costs (£/ha)






Total fixed costs (£/ha)






Net margin (£/ha)






Source: Procam. NB: Figures do not include land rent

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