Maize is an exceptional forage for ruminant livestock: palatable, digestible and energy-rich. Most breeders who’ve tried it are quickly convinced, which is why maize growing is so popular in the UK.
Getting the best out of maize requires careful – and constantly fine-tuned – crop and harvest management. When it comes to achieving high yields, we know from working with our customers that mastering a basic series of core skills can make a real difference.
Over the course of three articles, we’ll recap what we see as the key principles underpinning those skills. We’ll begin at the beginning – with site selection and drilling – before moving on to weed control and fertilizer application, and conclude with a look at harvesting and ensilage.
Maize is a plant of tropical origin. Though perfectly happy in the temperate parts of Northern Europe, it does need heat: 10°C is required in the soil for germination and development. Much of England and Wales is therefore suitable for maize growing, especially if sufficiently far south or low-lying. A south-facing, low-altitude field can be perfect. If the site’s climate is not ideal, plastic film covering is an option.
The quality of the soil itself is important. Besides the cold, excess water can seriously limit potential between the germination and four-leaf stages. So, while offering a good moisture level around the seed, the soil should equally have a loose, free-draining character. That’s also important for reaching temperature targets and for unimpeded root development.
The ideal soil will be medium-textured and somewhat cloddy: neither too heavy and clayey, nor too fine and silty.
It is particularly important that soil compaction be kept to a minimum. Tillage loosens the soil and helps dry it out and warm it up; but heavy machinery on wet ground can compact the seed-bed.
The best yields are often the result of early planting.
Early crops have the considerable advantage of dryer harvesting conditions. But planting time is ultimately dependent on temperature: if the soil is below 10°C, the seed will remain dormant and become vulnerable to disease, insects and animal predators.
Check soil temperature: it needs to be 8°C and rising at the start of the day for four to five consecutive d
ays – and at the right depth. And check that the weather forecast is favourable, with no impending frosts.
Good, slow-paced precision drilling distributes the seeds evenly and at a uniform depth. The specific depth can vary: remember that the deeper you go, the cooler the temperature, though also the safer from predator birds. Row spacing is usually 76cm.
When determining the right sowing rate, take into account each field’s yield potential; then adhere to that rate as closely as possible by keeping an eye on settings and distribution in the course of the work.
The goal is a crop of optimum density. Uniform spacing and depth encourages uniform seedling emergence and development – and so less competition between plants.
The right speed is important: going too fast risks misses, doubles and unequal sowing depth – all of which can impact on density and yield. The difference between going at 3 mph and 7 mph can mean a difference of several thousand plants per hectare.
And when it comes to equipment, ensure that tyre pressure is as low as possible; that the blades are in good condition; and that the sowing elements are functioning perfectly. Carry out the odd spot check to ensure that seed placement and drilling depths are being maintained, especially at higher speeds.
Finally, remember that, when it comes to maize growing and variety selection, we are here to help. Have a look at our recent interview with forage specialist Richard Leach on variety selection for 2022, or contact us for personal advice.