Usage of maize by UK livestock producers is increasing rapidly with reliability of forage production the main reason behind it, a new survey suggests.
Carried out by the Maize Growers Association, British Grassland Society and Grainseed Ltd, the analysis shows maize area grown by the survey group has increased by over 14% in the last five years.
“We have roughly the same number of animals – around 66,000 cows and 34,000 beef – as the last survey carried out in 2011,” explains Matt Pickard of Grainseed.
“But whilst herd size has increased considerably with dairy, for example, showing a 13% increase from 214 to 242 cows in the period, the rate of maize expansion has been almost double.”
And it’s not just to support year-round housing with the survey showing only one in five herds are kept in 365 days a year, he points out.
“It’s encouraging that despite the considerable scaling up of dairy enterprises, around 80% of herds still have access to grazing with much of the maize growth coming from complementary and buffer feeding whilst cows are at grass.
“In fact, whilst 28% of respondents say they have increased the amount of maize fed compared to five years ago, 75% say they now use maize all year round as a winter and summer buffer feed.”
The survey shows average area of maize grown per farm is now 43ha (107 acres) compared to 24ha (60 acres) in the first survey of 2007 and 31ha (78 acres) in 2011 – a near doubling in area per farm over ten years.
Whilst in previous surveys most producers said they fed maize to boost milk yield, the most important advantage identified now is security of forage stocks, Matt Pickard points out.
“Yields have risen from 8094 litres/cow/year in 2007 to 8796 litres/cow/year now so outright production is still important, but ensuring you have enough forage to get through the year really does seem to have overtaken it in terms of the main reason why people grow maize.
“We’ve had some bad years for grass production and silaging over the last five years with cold and wet summers, yet maize production has been relatively stable with good yields, digestibility and energy resulting.”
This is being reflected in long-term Met office data showing a trend toward warmer springs and winters and less sunshine in the summer months, which tends to work to maize’s advantage, he says.
“Top of the list for why people now grow maize is reliability of forage production with 62% of people in the survey saying this is the single biggest reason why they now grow maize.
“Higher production is at 55% in second place, but in third spot at 43% is better use of slurry and FYM showing this is increasingly important as herds get bigger and environmental legislation tightens up.”
Over 90% of growers say they consistently hit freshweight yields of 37-50t/ha (15-20t/acre) with 52% reporting average yields of 42-50t/ha (17–20t/acre).
“Whilst much of this is down to improvements in plant breeding and the increased availability of ‘Bred for Britain’ type varieties in recent years, better understanding of the crop and overall management levels are also contributing.
“As an indication of this, 94% of maize growers say they now use a professional agronomist, 78% report they calculate NPK requirements annually and 62% use a starter fertiliser with DAP now being the most popular choice compared to it being MAP in 2011.”
Very few people report significant pest problems although of the 6% that do, wireworms, leatherjackets and slugs are the main culprits. A similar number of growers routinely use a fungicide for controlling eyespot but the disease is not seen as a big issue, Matt Pickard says.
“Weeds are a different matter with 74% saying they have problems. Half of the sample have problems controlling nightshade, a third have issues with fat hen and one out of every four say they struggle with couch or meadow grass.
“Ploughing and subsequent cultivation remain the most popular seedbed preparation method favoured by 89% whilst only 8% use minimum tillage, 2% direct drill and 1% use strip tillage.”
When it comes to drilling rate, 97% of growers use between 105,000 and 112,000 seeds/ha (42,000 – 45,000 seeds/acre).
Whilst one in three growers say they harvest at 30% drymatter only 15% say they routinely sample for this before starting cutting with 57% saying they still judge this by eye, he adds.
“There’s a range of opinions about optimum chop length with 25% saying 8 – 12mm, 42% reporting 12 – 16mm and the remainder favouring longer chop lengths.
“The chop lengths are a little shorter than what we would expect, but probably reflect the dual use of maize for ruminants and AD.”
Nearly half of growers – 47% – say they use an additive at clamping.
“When it comes to feeding, whilst the vast majority of producers say they routinely have their maize sampled for nutritional value, nearly 10% say they do this only infrequently with 6% saying the never test their crops.
“Overall, we’re seeing maize becoming increasingly important to UK livestock producers with higher standards of management and better varieties delivering more consistent production.”