Maize is a staple forage crop, but it’s only in the ground for five or six months, typically leaving the land fallow over winter. This is neither environmentally friendly or profitable. But there is a solution that is good for the soil and can boost forage stocks – a cover crop – as one Staffordshire producer found out
“With land prices so high, leaving the ground fallow for six months of the year doesn’t make sense,” says Staffordshire-based producer Andrew Moore, who farms and runs a contracting business in partnership with his son Rob. “Neither does it help with potential nutrient leaching,” he adds.
The Moores are also keen to maximise feed from home-grown forages for their livestock – an autumn-calving suckler herd of 120 Simmental cows, which are crossed with Belgian Blue or Simmental sires, at Benbrook Farm near Rugeley.
They were encouraged to grow a cover crop after maize by Limagrain’s Brian Copestake. “It seemed like a good idea,” says Rob. “And other producers in the area were keen too – either opting for forage rye or an early growing Italian ryegrass.
“It meant that we had to drill the crop as soon as the maize was harvested to ensure good germination. And we grew the early maturing maize varieties Glory and Ambition, which also helped.”
Maize was harvested on October 20 and, keeping to tight time schedules, the land was ploughed, harrowed and drilled with Humbolt forage rye at a rate of 185kg/ha within three days, before being Cambridge rolled. Germination was good and a warm spring prompted early growth, helped along by a 125kg/ha dressing of nitrogen fertiliser in early March.
Rob harvested the forage rye in May. “It had headed by then and the crop was thick, and really consistent. We could see yields were good and it had the potential to boost our feed stocks for the following winter.
“I could have grazed this variety of forage rye, or cut it, a lot earlier – in late March or April. This would have given us a bigger window, if we’d needed it, before drilling this year’s maize crop.”
Growing costs, after the maize, worked out about £425/ha, made up of £178 for seed and fertiliser, £100 to plough and drill, and £147 to harvest and clamp. “And there are some hidden savings too,” adds Rob. “These come from less soil run off and reduced nutrient leaching.”
The Moores sell home-bred stores at between 15 and 18 months old from this closed herd, through Bakewell Market. They aim to get steers to 420kg and heifers to 380kg. And they rely, as much as possible, on home-grown forage. They feed maize and grass silage, wholecrop, and they are now incorporating the forage rye silage in the ration.
And they will reap the benefit of a hefty forage rye crop. Harvesting it relatively late has yielded 40t/ha fresh weight and fermentation was good. Crude protein content was 92g/kg.
“The ME in this crop was only 7.2 – a little low because we cut it too late. But next year we will cut the crop before it heads and we would then expect an energy value far closer to 10,” says Rob. Despite having lower energy and crude protein levels than grass silage, typically around 10 ME/kg DM and between 11% and 12% CP, forage rye is an ideal feed for young stock and dry cows.
“For us, it will be a perfect dry cow and store cattle forage. Our store cattle are put on to a TMR from eight months old and we don’t feed any cerreals, so this will be a really valuable extra forage.”
Looking at the costs verses yield, Brian Copestake estimates that a value of £20/t fresh weight can be attached to Humbolt forage rye, so yields above 22t/ha would represent a profit.
“With a yield of 40t/ha, the value of the forage rye crop in feed value is £800/ha – nearly double Rob’s growing and harvesting costs of £425/ha,” says Brian. “And if the crop was grazed – forage rye is ideal for early turnout grazing in the spring – the growing costs would drop to £278/ha on the Moore’s farm, making it even more attractive.
“The environmental advantages are an additional benefit,” he adds. “It makes real financial sense. There are 170,000 hectares of maize grown in the UK each year, and so potentially there is wasted opportunity.
“It’s also interesting that in other countries, including Denmark, legislation means that growers have to have ‘green fields’ with catch crops before a spring crop to avoid nutrient leaching and to support soil structure.”
Brian is seeing a growing trend among producers who are sowing cover crops that sit neatly between maize crops. “It’s attracting more interest. I’ve seen good crops of forage rye, and of the high yielding annual ryegrass Westerwold, in these situations. The choice of cover crop depends on the site, its soil type and the micro climate.
“Forage rye is robust,” he adds. “It will grow on a wide variety of soils and tends to resist pests and diseases. Humbolt has been bred for its winter hardiness and for producing an early bite, which can be up to three weeks earlier than Italian ryegrass. I think this is why we saw such high yields on the Moore’s unit.”
Another option for producers looking at cover crops is the mixture of forage rye and vetch, which is used in Lift ‘n Fix seeds mixture. This mixture meets the EFA greening scheme requirements and the higher protein value of the vetch increases its feed value.
Based on his success in growing forage rye, the Moores are set to follow this year’s maize harvest with another crop of Humbolt. “It makes sense to put our maize in a rotation and grow three crops in 18 months. We’re making the land pay and we’re also putting something back in to help the soil. But the icing on the cake is the additional quality forage for the cattle.”