In the second blog on maize production in the UK, Bright Maize business manager Charlie Dolphin looks at the wider maize market, future prospects and the issues driving breeding programmes
Forage maize was virtually unknown as a crop in the UK 60 years ago. Yet today maize is a vital tool for many dairy farmers and its importance seems certain to increase further in the coming years. The three biggest factors driving the spread of maize are climate change, the improved performance of specialised seed varieties bred with the UK market in mind, and the need for tighter cost control.
The changing UK climate has lengthened the growing season and increased potential yields, and made maize a viable crop further north across England and Wales and into Scotland and Northern Ireland. But it has also made drought and unpredictable weather more common, both of which can have a serious impact on yield. In a changing and unpredictable environment, it is essential to have a seed which is as fine-tuned as possible for particular circumstances, so that new potential is maximised and new perils minimised.
Global supply chains are increasingly stretched
There are many pressures on dairy farmers to control and reduce costs whilst maintaining and improving milk yields and protecting the environment. Many readers will know that supermarket buyers can be tough customers to please, and higher milk prices are rarely an option even as inflation bites elsewhere. And many input prices have risen as global supply chains are increasingly stretched, which puts pressure on farm margins.
Producing greater volumes of milk produced from home grown forage is the key to efficiency. Since grass silage on its own can be limited in supporting modern levels of milk output from each cow, maize silage has become a pivotal part of creating the right ‘forage mix’ for high quality, high volume milk from healthy cattle. The digestibility and attractiveness of forage maize for cattle, and higher levels of energy, fat and protein compared to grass silage, have made it an important and difficult-to-replace component of cattles’ diet for many farmers.
Breeding programmes with the UK very much in mind
Some farmers have believed, perhaps not entirely without justification, that in the past the maize seed offered in the UK was produced for the conditions prevailing in European markets. There was a feeling we had to make do with something that, whilst it would do a job, was not always as good as it could have been for our needs, and we were ‘always the bridesmaid’ when it came to maize seed breeding programmes. At Bright Maize, we are confident that our strong and long-standing partnership with the leading maize seed developers MAS Seeds means this is very much a thing of the past.
MAS Seeds invests 10% of its 880m Euro turnover in research and development, with ten research centres around the world developing and testing new varieties of maize. Bright Maize is a crucial part of that effort, with trial centres across Britain, in addition to our main research site in Wiltshire. The regional network of trial centres is key to unlocking the benefits of the substantial investment in maize seed optimised for British conditions, and enables us to offer growers specialised knowledge of what works best in their area.
Maize still a relatively untapped crop in the UK
The reason for all this investment is that, although maize-growing has come a long way in this country, there is still a lot of untapped potential. Maize remains a relatively new crop here, and particularly in more northern areas it is still not considered as a viable crop. Denmark is a Scandinavian country on a similar latitude to Scotland, but it grows nearly as much forage maize as the whole of the UK. Given Denmark has fewer than a third of the dairy cattle in the UK, that means Denmark grows 3 times more forage maize per dairy cow than we do.
Sweden and each of the Baltic states all have significant forage maize crops – Estonia, on a similar latitude to the Scottish Highlands, grows more forage maize per dairy cow than Britain. Meanwhile Poland, on a similar latitude to England, grows three times as much forage maize as the whole of the UK, and Belgium grows nearly as much as the UK despite its smaller size. Of course, latitude is not the only climate factor to consider, but these figures show how well-established maize is as a crop in unexpected locations.
The UK growing seasons and varieties have improved
It might seem surprising that what was originally a sub-tropical crop has spread so far, and a lot of this is down to the success of breeding programmes aimed at producing more and better early maturing varieties. In earlier times maturation was the main factor in selecting maize seed for the UK market, but as climate change has extended the UK growing season and varieties have improved, it has become only one factor among several to consider.
On average, one in every three years now sees drought in the UK, so drought-resistance has become increasingly important for crops. This is particularly so for maize, whose yield can be substantially reduced by drought, as last year showed. New varieties have strong, deep roots to tap water where possible; flower earlier to reduce the risk of drought when it hurts yield most; and can establish and maintain leaves better under water stress, reducing the impact of drought.
A ’cash crop’ approach gets best results
Of course, no matter how good the seed, it is crop-husbandry which counts the most. There is no magic seed which will always grow well without careful and knowledgeable attention. Maize is a highly-productive crop in the UK, but it is not a native plant and it needs to be grown with attention to detail on some critical points. Farmers who take a ‘cash crop’ approach to its production will usually get the best results, in good years and perhaps more crucially in bad years too.
Maturation time and drought-resistance are aspects of maize cultivation where sowing date and method and seed-bed preparation are crucial to obtaining the highest quantity and quality of harvest. Sow too late and the crop does not have long enough to yield fully; sow too early and some of the crop will fail to germinate, reducing overall yield; sow too shallowly and seeds will be lost to birds; sow too deeply and the soil may be too cold for the seeds to germinate and establish themselves.
A well-prepared seed-bed gives maize the best chance of the optimal warm, moist but well-drained soil at the earliest possible date, and removing subsoil pans allows it to establish deep well-established roots, which are needed for good yield and resistance to drought. Precision drilling is needed to plant seeds at the optimal depth. There is a longer discussion of seed-bed preparation here.
Harvest is critical to quality of conservation in the silage clamp
Harvesting maize efficiently at the right time is also critical for a successful crop, with a dry matter content at 32 – 35% needed to produce high quality silage. This maximises feed value, ease of silage production and quality of conservation in the silage clamp. Research shows that up to two thirds of farmers do not always harvest at the right time. Through its work with MAS Seeds, Bright Seeds is now able to offer GREEN+ hybrid varieties like MAS 75B which are ideal for UK conditions.
GREEN+ hybrids have a longer stay green period. This means the leaves and stems continue photosynthesising energy for longer, so are more resilient to stress and drought. The high levels of soluble sugars and green parts enable quicker fermentation and pH drop in the silo, and there is better quality of conservation, with 3% lower losses compared to regular varieties. Together these factors work to maximise all of yield, feed value and quality of conservation, the three most important considerations for evaluating forage maize output.
The longer stay green period with GREEN+ has another valuable property. Since the crop stays within the 32 – 35% dry matter window for longer as leaves and stems mature and dry out more slowly, there is greater flexibility for harvesting at the optimal time, typically an extra 5 to 10 days compared to regular varieties. This can be very helpful at what is always a busy time of year on the farm, and the extended window allows time to wait for the right weather for harvesting if need be, or for extra time for crop maturation if conditions have been difficult earlier.
60 years’ experience breeding maize
MAS Seeds has over 60 years’ experience breeding new maize varieties, and has always tried to take a farmer-centric view. Underpinning the work is a commitment to agroecology, which seeks to create sustainable and resilient farming systems for the modern age. Growing more resilient and drought-resistant plants, diversifying dairy farms so that feed is produced on site rather than importing external feed, and the use of high carbon capture crops like maize are all examples of practical changes made by farmers which show how agroecology can help solve problems that affect us all.
New maize varieties offering early maturation, higher yield and feed value, and better drought- and pest-resistance are some of the results of the investment by Bright Maize and MAS Seeds to realise the full potential of forage maize in the UK, but the real work on the ground is done by farmers. That is why Bright Maize offers ongoing expert and accessible technical support to all customers on every aspect of growing maize, supported by our detailed local knowledge of conditions across the country.