Milk from forage continues to be a high priority on dairy farms, fuelled by increasing purchased feed prices and the impact of the reduction in Single Farm Payments.
“We are seeing higher prices for all feed commodities,” comments Tim Richmond, Limagrain Field Seeds Maize Manager UK & Ireland. “This is putting pressure on margins, especially as the difficult silaging season in 2021 means many grass silages are lower than average quality and will require higher levels of supplementation.
“At the same time, dairy farmers are having to plan for life with reduced Single Farm Payments. The average dairy farm will see a reduction of 25-35% in 2022, rising to 40-50% in 2023, which will see farm income reduced by around 1ppl.
“So the challenge will be producing more, better quality forage to help reduce the impact of these economic factors. I would advise starting forage planning now, and in particular to consider opportunities for increasing maize acreage. As a starch-based forage it can complement high quality grass silages extremely well and this year is helping cows make the most of this year’s grass silage which is higher in fibre, and slightly less digestible than normal.”
He says even in a difficult maize season like 2021, crops generally performed well. The wet cold weather in April delayed harvest, but later sown crops did not suffer.
“Early sown crops drilled into cold soils struggled to get away, with the seed sitting and sulking. Where drilling was delayed until soil conditions were optimum, crops got away very quickly and were ready to harvest at the same time as earlier sown crops – provided care had been taken with variety choice.
“While most of our trial sites around the country were drilled in mid to late April and harvested in early October, the site at Bangor-on-Dee was not sown until late May.
However, the plots were all mature and ready to harvest in mid-October, making up over two weeks of the lost time. All yielded well and even the later maturing varieties came off at over 30% dry matter.
“New earlier-maturing varieties with strong early vigour mean you can manage by the conditions rather than the calendar and still get crops harvested in good time and in good conditions.”
Mr Richmond believes if dairy farmers want to increase forage productivity for next season, then maize is a serious contender and says it is worth asking the question about whether more maize could be grown (see flowchart).
“The first point to stress is that if your farm isn’t suitable for maize, then don’t try and grow it. Similarly, if some land is suitable but some is not, don’t try and push acreage. But if you have suitable fields, then it is certainly worth taking a close look at. By selecting an earlier variety it might be possible to grow a crop successfully on more marginal land.”
He says they are many varieties that are now available which will mature at least a week sooner than others, requiring fewer Ontario Heat Units to reach full maturity. Earliness is defined by the FAO for the variety; the earlier the variety the lower the FAO. If you have a shorter growing season or a marginal site, selecting an earlier variety will reduce the risk of variable weather delaying harvest and will increase the chance of the successor crop being established.
To simplify variety choice, the LG Maize Manager App which is available on the Apple or Google Play stores, or at www.maizemanager.com Here, growers can find the Maturity Manager tool. Developed with the Met Office, it shows the average heat units for your post code and recommends suitable varieties.
“Having identified varieties suitable for your area, the Feed Manager tool allows you to compare varieties on their expected output and milk production potential. Selecting a variety like Prospect or Resolute, for example, will ensure a higher quality feed and the potential to increase milk from forage significantly.
Mr Richmond comments that where maize is currently grown, it may be worth considering following it with a crop like Westerwolds/Italian Ryegrass, to ensure a successor crop is established and contribute additional forage for the spring. “Sowing Westerwolds, Italian Ryegrass or Humbolt forage rye will prevent soil run off and improve retention of nutrients in the soil while building soil organic matter. Westerwolds and Italians are suitable for grazing or cutting while Humbolt forage rye can be grazed, zero-grazed or baled. All offer flexibility and will increase total forage output per hectare.”
If there is not scope to grow more maize on the existing acreage, Mr Richmond points out that having maize grown under contract could be a realistic option for dairy farmers in most parts of the country. He says there is increased interest among arable and dairy farmers alike, as it is an arrangement that can bring big benefits to both parties.
He emphasises that it is important to acknowledge that the objectives of the two parties will often be different. The livestock farmer will be interested in the yield of quality forage to maximise the benefit to his business and his return on investment when buying the crop, focussing on characteristics like dry matter yield, starch content and cell wall digestibility.
The grower will be more concerned with how the variety will suit the rotation that it will mature quickly enough and be harvested in time to allow the autumn sown successor crop to be established.
“But both parties can benefit. The dairy farmer can increase the proportion of maize available without compromising the system at the home farm. They also have no responsibility for the growing of the crop and can benefit from the arable farmer’s expertise. They can budget the tonnage they should receive and will be involved in key decision making such as harvesting date.
“The grower has an additional cash crop and can use maize to improve the overall rotation. Agronomically, maize can prove particularly effective on farms wanting to control problematic weeds like blackgrass.”
Mr Richmond explains that under a typical arrangement, a farmer contracts to grow a set acreage of maize. The grower covers the growing costs, while the buyer pays the costs of harvesting and pays a set price per tonne grown. The buyer will arrange the harvesting with the contractor in consultation with the grower. In some cases, the buyer may supply slurry to the grower and this will be reflected in the price.
“Structured in this way, both parties can benefit, but it is vital for each to understand each other’s objectives. The grower will want a crop that fits in with the system and this will usually mean an early maturing crop, allowing a successor crop to be established. As payment is often on a per tonne freshweight basis, physical yield will be important.
“For the purchasing dairy farmer on the other hand, the objective of ensuring sufficient yield will be a priority, but quality will be increasingly important. Quality forage will be required to increase energy intakes, to boost overall dry matter intakes and maximise the return on investment.
“Variety choice is the basis of any agreement and ensuring the objectives of both parties are met.”
Mr Richmond says both parties should be involved in the discussion on variety choice. He says that it is possible to select a variety with early maturity and good yields to meet the grower’s objectives, at the same time having exceptional feed value to deliver the quality the dairy farmer needs.
“For arrangements requiring a very early variety, then Gema and Dignity would be an excellent choice as they both produce high quality, energy-dense forage, but are suited to a short growing season, allowing a successor crop of winter wheat to be established.
“In parts of the country where more heat units are available and conditions and site class mean higher yielding and later FAO varieties are a practical option, then Mantilla and LG31.207 would be good choices, producing plentiful yields of high energy feed.”
“With the pressure on margins, increasing milk from forage remains a priority. In many parts of the country, maize can offer a flexible way to increase total forage production and take control of your feed costs.
“And with fertiliser prices rising quickly, it has the attraction of being a lesser user of nitrogen. In addition as the biggest demand for nitrogen is at stem extension, one option would be to apply less in the seedbed and apply foliar nitrogen later – by which time we might see a weakening in fertiliser prices,” Mr Richmond concludes.