Maize varieties: Consider factors before planting

It is never too early to think about what maize to grow this year. Joanne Pugh asks experts around the country for their advice.

The most important tool for farmers considering growing maize this year is a spade. Soil structure has really suffered in some areas following wet conditions during last year’s maize harvest, which could be a problem for 2009 the crop.

Be realistic about the type of site being used to grow maize.
Credit: © FARMERS GUARDIAN please contact 01772 799445.

Robert Baker of Dorset-based Pearce Seeds recommends digging a hole in fields planned for maize to assess the soil structure.

“If you see really horrible canals of wet lines, then plough another field,” he says. “If the ground is that bad don’t put maize back in because you’re heading for disaster.”

Mr Baker is concerned some fields are still so wet it will be impossible to subsoil them before planting in April. He suggests looking at wholecrop or a new grass/red clover ley and having ‘a year off’ from maize in damaged fields, especially if other areas of the farm are suitable for maize .

Francis Dunne, an independent forage adviser based in Herefordshire, agrees wholecrop or grass might be a good alternative for some farmers this year.

He says unless we have a very dry spring, it may not be possible to mend a ‘badly mauled field’ until it’s far too late to plant maize.

“Soil structure is key – it’s the most important thing in any year. If you’ve got that, then getting the right variety is an easy job.

“It’s the same cost to grow a good crop as a bad crop, so there’s no point spending £300 per acre on seed if it won’t perform.”

But not everyone agrees. Simon Draper of the Maize Growers

Association (MGA) says soil structure is an issue, but maize is still a good option because it is planted later than many crops, allowing for problems to be corrected.

Helen Mathieu of British Seed Houses recommends ‘sticking with maize’ because it is ‘good value for money’, with only fodder beet able to compete on bulk.

Although maize is going to be more expensive to grow this year, most advisers agree with Ms Mathieu that it is still a cost-effective option, if grown properly.

Simon Pope of Wynnstay, which operates in Wales and the West Midlands, believes maize is a ‘very economic way’ of filling the clamp. He says maize is cheaper per tonne of dry matter than three cuts of silage, including contractor fees, and offers starch on top.

Martin Yeates of Kingshay recommends costing home-grown maize against buying in feed with comparable bulk and starch content. For those growing under plastic, he says they must be realistic about how maize will yield to make a proper comparison.

John Burgess of plant breeding company KWS says maize ‘stacks up’ against other crops and thinks the area planted in 2009 will exceed the record set last year when around 151,000 hectares (373,129 acres) were grown.

His concern is that, because the harvest was so late last year, a lot of farmers will opt for ultra-early varieties this year and ‘sell themselves short on yield’.

But early varieties are popular with advisers. Mr Dunne says: “In general, people are looking at slightly earlier material and that’s no bad thing. You can’t buy time and there has been a general improvement in performance of early material.”

Ms Mathieu warns earlier maturing varieties offer starch, but not necessarily bulk. For those looking to include maize silage in a ration at less than 40 per cent, starch and quality rather than quantity is a good option.

Looking at variety choice from a nutritionist’s point of view, Seth Wareing of Keenan says farmers in good maize-growing areas need to choose between bulk and starch.

He works in the north of England where ‘the only choice of variety is maize or no maize’, but thinks further south farmers should concentrate more on starch if they can offer bulk from grass silage or another forage.

“Maize starch is a very rumen-friendly starch, so cows can cope with a bigger amount than from cereals,” he says.

“Starch is also good for finishing cattle, although not so much for growing cattle, so is worth considering for beef farmers.”

Mr Draper recommends being realistic about the type of site being used to grow maize. If you are not sure if the area is marginal or favourable, then picking a variety recommended for a marginal site will guarantee you get the grain and starch. A favourable variety is more likely to deliver bulk.

Ms Mathieu says the type of site is not dictated by how far north or south you are, but is more to do with south-facing versus north-facing slopes and soil type.

Dr Yeates adds Kingshay’s trial results from 2008 showed how important matching the variety to the site was.

“On what we term our intermediate growing sites, individual variety dry matter yields ranged from five tonnes per hectare to 7.5 tonnes per hectare and starch contents from less than 25 per cent to over 35 per cent,” he says.

He is unable to say which varieties performed best, as that information is only available to Kingshay members, but recommends growing a variety known to perform well in your area, from past experience or speaking to local advisors and neighbouring growers.

However, Mr Pope says it’s worth try new varieties and there is ‘no surer test’ than growing two varieties side by side. He recommends choosing one to complement what is already being grown, for example something from a similar maturity class.

Dr Yeates recommends considering performance data for different varieties, but to look for rolling averages covering three to five years. Going on one-year data is a ‘knee jerk reaction’, he says.

When it comes to accessing data, advisers give varying verdicts on the NIAB descriptive list, which gives information on maturity, yield, quality and crop characteristics.

Members of MGA and the British Society of Plant Breeders have access to the list, but farmers can also ask seed companies for the information as they are given it annually by NIAB.

Seed companies often offer information on their own trials, and Mr Burgess says using that data supports companies developing new varieties.

However, as Ms Mathieu points out, these trials are not independent and, if conducted on a single site, can be misleading.

She recommends making enquiries locally about what suits the area, having an ‘enquiring mind’ but not getting ‘bamboozled’ with too much information.

The worst situation would be to try several varieties, but forgetting which ones did well where when making an informed decision the following year, she says.

Mr Dunne says unless you have ‘strong evidence’, go for varieties you know about. “Don’t be blinded by the latest, greatest thing,” he says.

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