Bright Maize Business Manager, Charlie Dolphin, looks at this this year’s maize season so far, and comments on the trends and challenges. He also observes that those who grow maize are becoming more discerning in their attitude towards the crop and how it is grown.

The 2023 maize season so far has not been the most predictable on record; and has to some extent challenged conventional wisdom.

First, we had warnings of seed shortages that would leave those who order late scrambling around for inferior varieties. Secondly, we had a difficult spring when the question was: to drill, or not to drill?

In relation to the first: the seed shortage did not materialise (it certainly did not materialise at Bright Maize, nor particularly across the sector). The difference this year was that the threat of insufficient seed was well-grounded – a poor maize harvest the previous year (giving rise to significant reductions in seed yield) and the knock-on effect of the war in Ukraine. In the end neither impacted significantly.

Good reasons to order earlier completely unrelated to supply issues

Whilst maize seed availability was a genuine matter to raise this year, we must be careful not to constantly bang the same drum simply to secure an early order; if we do, it will be seen as crying wolf and credibility will be lost. In fact, there are many good reasons to order your seed early which are completely removed from supply issues (a switched-on supplier will usually give a discount for an early order because it permits more efficient stock control, better dispatch planning and the avoidance of a mad rush at the last minute).

The drilling date issue turned out to be much trickier and not without controversy. An unusually wet April, followed by an unusually dry May, meant that growers were not presented with the typical harvesting window they would expect. Overall, those who delayed drilling fared best: a basic principle of crop husbandry – that a yield penalty will ensue for each day drilling is delayed beyond the optimum date – had to be overlooked in many instances.

This year the stark options were, drill according to the textbook and risk having to reseed later, or wait and be sure of a crop from one drill later in the season. Where the pertinent information was to hand, Bright Maize overwhelmingly advised the second option – and it appears to have been correct.

Bird damage was a particular problem for early drilled maize

Many of those choosing to drill into a dry seed-bed ended up having to purchase new seed and start all over again a month to six weeks later. This was most prevalent where poor seed-bed preparations exacerbated the already challenging sowing conditions. Bird damage also played a part due to dry conditions causing the seed dressing to lose connectivity; it also diminished natural feed sources such as wild seed (heightening the scavenging-risk of commercially sown seed).

That said, Korit remains the only effective bird repellent available – and it was not without a sigh of relief that we learnt recently of a reprieve to its proposed ban at the end of 2023. Bright Maize was among several industry players who fought against the ban. In a statement to DEFRA, it said:

Korit is the only credible bird repellent available to maize growers at present, and will by far be the main seed treatment for maize growers for the 2023 season. That it can be vanquished from all UK erroneous; and places an unreasonable burden on the farmer. 

We expect the continued use of Korit until a feasible alternative becomes available, which we understand – from research currently underway – will be around 2025.

Yields are expected to be 20% up on last year

The later-sowing of maize this year will impact yields, but most crops at this stage (end of July) are well established and looking healthy. Barring a major setback, it is plausible that typical yields will be of 15 tonnes fresh weight per acre – an increase of around 20% compared to last year. Interestingly, the area of maize grown in the UK is slightly down, due in large part to the bumper yields of first-cut grass silage; although this might come back and bite some farmers who have struggled to get a second-cut, if at all.

The trend towards earlier varieties continued in 2023 with maturity classes 9 and above being most popular.  Perhaps, the most noticeable trend was in the anaerobic digestion sector, where greater discernibility was evident when selecting maize varieties. If not yet banished altogether, the days are certainly numbered when growers of maize destined for AD purchased varieties solely on the tonnage yield potential. AD operators are now far more likely to stipulate the varieties they want grown, and in some cases are now purchasing the maize on behalf of the growers.

Incentives must eventually come into play for maize going into AD

Indeed, such is the shift in thinking that it is probable maize varieties for AD will be selected on gas yield per acre rather than bulk yield. Much the same as bonuses are paid for oil content in oil seed rape production, incentives must eventually come into play for maize going into AD. And this is borne out by research and development currently carried out by Bright Maize’s partner company, French-based MAS Seeds. It will not be too long before tangible gas yield data becomes a critical factor in the purchase of maize seed.

In summing up the maize season so far, it is worth observing how the attitude of growers has changed. Whereas forage maize was often treated akin to a grass crop for silage, nowadays farmers are more thorough in their approach. Today, a forage maize crop is far more likely to receive the attention to detail associated with a cash crop such as winter wheat or oil seed rape. This can only bode well because timely spraying, accurate fertiliser application and correct seed-bed preparation (particularly the use of a subsoiler) will pay a handsome dividend come harvest.

Bright Maize will be holding its annual Open Day in conjunction with Bright Seeds on August 23, 2023 at its headquarters: Dean Lane Farm, Fovant, Salisbury SP3 5LQ.

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