Opinion: Maize growing questioned after squelch-fest

As the weather becomes ever more extreme and unpredictable, there are still at least two things guaranteed in my world.

First, the wind will triple in strength the moment we unroll a silage sheet, and second, the weather will break the week we plan on cutting maize.

While sheeting the clamp in hurricane conditions is frustrating, we’ve yet to fail.

A polite phone call to the senior generation so they can add a few kgs to hold the sheet down, and it’s all wrapped up and forgotten about by bedtime.

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About the author

Ian Farrant
Ian Farrant is a beef farmer from Herefordshire. His farm is part of a larger family partnership with dairy and arable enterprises. He’s exploring options for regenerative farming and is introducing new enterprises, including planting 6ha of hazelnut trees.
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The weather breaking when we decide to cut our maize is less easily fixed. In fact, it gives me sleepless nights.

This past year was most definitely no exception; 76mm of rain while we were halfway through made a mockery of my soil-first regen plans.

As I sat on the JCB tractor sweeping the neighbours’ drive after every load, I made a promise to find a more sustainable alternative. But now the dust has settled (or washed into the ditch), it doesn’t seem such an easy decision.

We’ve always seen the combination of grass and maize as an insurance policy. In a hot, dry summer, grass yields drop and we end up grazing a significant part of our silage ground.

However, our maize will thrive and we often find ourselves with just as much forage.

In a wet, cold year, when our maize might struggle, we have grass galore. The balance works brilliantly.

However, as we navigate our way to a more sustainable system, our use of maize comes into question.

Not the plant itself, as I’m a big believer that its ability to photosynthesise mid-summer while everything else is dormant or senescing must be doing the soil wonders, but the potential damage we do at harvest – with this harvest being a heavy reminder.

So, this winter’s starter for 10 is how can we produce enough forage in a way that helps improve our soils rather than jeopardise them, even in a hot, dry year.

We’ve recently changed to a native breed of cattle in an attempt to reduce the concentrate required at fattening. This should help as they are more suited to a grass-based system.

Climate change brings unpredictability, and that’s the biggest challenge.

It makes prioritising soil even more important. Water retention in drought and rapid infiltration in heavy rain should be everyone’s goal – for your bottom line, if not for the environment.

Next door to the squelch-fest that is our maize stubble, we have a 20-acre patch of herbal ley in its third year.

While I needed waders to cross the maize stubble, I was over the moon with how the herbal ley was draining.

While we might not be in slipper territory yet, I certainly could have walked across it in trainers without any issue, highlighting the speed at which soil can repair.

I’m praying 2024 brings us all some sensible, less extreme weather, but I’m not holding my breath.

My phone is at saturation point with weather apps, and while these new super computers seem to do a great job forecasting four days ahead, maybe if we all chip in a fiver, we could get one that predicts it eight months in advance.

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