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Farm’s own precision drill allows full control

Most maize-growing farms employ contractors to drill the crop. But when it was added into the rotation at Wistaston Farm, farm manager Steve Klenk wanted full control of the drilling operation.

Wistaston Farm is an in-hand farm of Garnstone Estate in Kings Pyon, Herefordshire. Here, farm manager Steve Klenk has been improving the soil health and structure on the arable farm with a strategy that encompasses min-tilling and direct drilling, winter cover-cropping and the spreading of animal manures. Five years ago, Garnstone Estate took a share in the set up and running of an AD plant which now supplies both heat and electricity to a factory. The feedstock was to be maize silage. So, for the first time, maize was added into the cereal crop rotation at Wistaston Farm.


Most of the ground is a silty clay loam; the fields selected for growing maize are those with lighter soils.

Maize will follow wheat in the rotation. But first, after the wheat harvest, a cover crop mixture is established. This ‘forever green’ approach confers a number of benefits, Steve explains: “It helps prevent soil erosion and soil slumping, and the presence of a root system maintains a good soil structure.
The cover crop will also mop up any leftover nutrients from the previous crop, and mine nutrients from the soil.”

With an eye on keeping costs as low as possible, Steve buys in seed as straights and then makes up the mixtures on-farm, and these are sown using a fertiliser spinner. The autumn-sown cover crops may contain up to 12 plant species, and typically include oats, phacelia, peas, Crimson clover, clover and linseed.

In early spring, the cover crops are spread with 2t/ha of chicken muck, followed by 20t/ha of a combination of cattle muck and liquid and solid digestates from the AD plant. The cover crops and manures are then disced into the soil.

Steve explains: “Then we’ll run through the cover crop with a low-disturbance subsoiler, followed by a HE-VA disc roller to create a seedbed into which the maize will be drilled. Because the ground has not been overly cultivated, there’s no slumping.”

Typically, five varieties of maize are grown each year, sourced from several suppliers. Some are ‘bankers’ – that have been grown successfully before on the farm, and then every year some new ones are tried. All varieties need to be early or ultra-early maturing, so they can be harvested in September, in time for winter wheat to be sown.

Maize drill choice

Most maize drilling on farms is carried out by contractors, but Steve wanted to keep the drilling in-house, even though the initial maize acreage was not large. He explains: “I wanted control – the convenience of being able to grab the weather window and drill when I wanted, rather than having to wait for a contractor.

“On our minimal tillage systems, and heavy soils, I knew the seedbeds were never going to be perfect. So we needed a disc drill.”

To start with, a second-hand Gaspardo precision drill was purchased for the job. “With the Gaspardo drill design, the seed sits in a perfect seedbed; it might be a bit cloddy either side of it, but I’m not too worried about that,” adds Steve.

In 2019, the maize acreage was increased to 400 acres (162 ha) and included 70 acres (28ha) grown on contract for a local dairy farm.

Having been pleased with the design and performance of the old drill, Steve approached his local dealer L.Evans and Son for a new 6-row Gaspardo MTE drill with an MTR planting unit.

“We effectively replaced the old drill ‘like for like’ but there were improvements in the new model and I’ve noticed some clear differences. For instance, there’s slightly better row spacing.

“Also, the parallelogram linkage is a heavier unit and has more strength – so it is better at dampening any coulter bounce, which gives more even depth of establishment, and we can go a bit faster if needed.

“It’s an easy drill to use – adjusting the seed rate and fertiliser rate is simple.” A seed rate of 110,000 seeds/ha is used with 125kg/ha of DAP put down the spout at drilling.

Steve prefers to drill at 8km/hr, although he says he could go faster: “At this speed, I’m still covering 2ha/hour and using four litres of diesel per ha. So it’s not an expensive operation.”

2019 harvest

Contractors are called in for the harvesting operation. Last autumn, harvesting started at the beginning of October and fields were cut in several different lots over a 3-week period.

“We averaged a yield of 46t/ha,” says Steve. “And I’m very pleased with that. There wasn’t a vast difference between the five varieties grown, but there were differences in yield between some fields.”

In a normal autumn, once maize is harvested, shallow cultivation follows using the disc roller and then wheat is drilled into that. But last autumn, like on many farms, wet weather has meant most fields have had to be left unsown.

Steve explains: “We only managed to drill 80 acres of winter wheat. We have some spring wheat to sow, and in any remaining fields, we’ll just put a cover crop in, or leave them fallow.

New maize seed treatment

Maize breeder KWS has announced that the vast majority of its hybrid varieties for 2020 will be treated with a new joint bird repellent and fungicide product. It follows the withdrawal of key active ingredients from the marketplace.

The Initio Bird Protect new seed treatment has active ingredients which include prothioconazol + metalaxyl + ziram. To enhance its efficacy, it also contains zinc and manganese micronutrients for faster root development.

Growing maize without a bird repellency seed treatment is “not an option,” according to John Burgess of KWS.

“High UK populations of birds like pheasants and rooks mean that there is a risk of significant crop losses from untreated seed or ineffective treatments,” says Mr Burgess.

“In response to the withdrawal of both TMTD (thiram) and Mesurol (methiocarb), other maize breeders are offering a plethora of differing treatments and this has caused confusion. KWS recognises that the withdrawal of these actives means the industry has lost its go-to standards and there is a responsibility to safeguard maize crop health. By offering Initio Bird Protect on virtually every KWS hybrid in our 2020 portfolio, we bring a total clarity of choice for growers.

“This initiative will also help to protect the UK maize acreage, which may diminish if untreated or fungicide-only treated seed is drilled. However, with a backdrop of an ever-decreasing range of active ingredients, KWS researchers are also working towards a permanent solution to this issue,” he says.

Growers planting Initio Bird Protect treated seed have the KWS commitment to crop safety, bird repellency and best-in-class hybrids for the maize season ahead, John adds.

Best maize varieties for 2020

Growers for both biogas and forage are looking for stability and maximum yield potential and the new, high-starch (36.2 per cent) KWS Exelon (FAO 170) possesses these qualities in abundance, as well as one unique trait. Suitable across all soil types, it has the potential to carry 20 rings of grain; by comparison a typical older hybrid will contain 15–16. This trait will increase cob weight and therefore to offset the risk of lodging, KWS Exelon has been developed with a lower ear insertion height.

“Maize varieties are bred in generations and KWS Exelon represents the first of a series of new-generation hybrids,” says John. “It has been the best performer in
our in-house trials and is available for the coming season.”

Another strong contender for 2020 planting is Keops (FAO 210/220). The variety is suitable for biogas or forage in warmer areas of the country and is ideal for spreading the drilling/harvest window. It has a heavy yield potential of 50-55t/ha, while its high grain:stover ratio means it offers stable ripening in cooler seasons. 

“We are achieving rapid genetic progress in breeding plants that suit the UK climate and we advise growers to take advantage of this progress,
by including some of the most recently-launched varieties as a percentage of the farm’s maize seed portfolio,” says John.

Single pass under-sowing

Achievable in a single pass, the Mzuri Pro-Til Strip tillage drill is capable of drilling maize in 66cm rows, while seeding grass inbetween the rows at the same time. Advocating under-sowing maize with grass to improve soil structure, Mzuri is interested in limiting erosion and nutrient leaching caused by heavy rainfall and improve harvest conditions.

The Pro-Til can seed alternating rows of maize and grass and each crop can be drilled at its optimum seed rate and depth, so neither is compromised. Using a third unit to apply the grass seeds via alternating coulters, the main bulk tank on dual-tank models can be used to supply maize seed to the remaining coulters, as well as fertiliser to the front leg where it’s placed below the seed. In total, the Pro-Til dual tank models can handle up to four different products through its control unit. Users often choose to apply slug pellets at the same time, alleviating the need for an additional pass. 

Green ground cover between the rows and its additional root mass can help bind soil and reduce erosion and nutrient leaching, which remains a big problem in UK maize production. Additionally, having a base of grass beneath the crop can make travelling and harvesting in wet conditions easier and has the benefit of providing over-winter grazing too.

Mzuri believes growing maize without an under sown crop will come under more scrutiny as soil health starts to take centre stage – and there may even be legislation.

  • Written by: Farmers Guide
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