I have been reporting on a series of forage maize trials since 2005 and the concensus of opinion seems to suggest that growers find the results and comments both interesting and useful (and long may that continue), in that they are derived from sites that try and represent the bulk of commercial sites on which maize is grown throughout the region.

If growers cast their minds back just a few years, they will no doubt remember that they benefited from four successive good growing years in 2003/4/5 and 2006. They will also remember that nature has a habit of reminding us all just who really is in charge and duly sent us two really appalling years in 2007/8. It is these seemingly inconsistent weather patterns that provides us with the drive and determination in trying to provide you with a continual update on both established and new material that we believe will give you the most optimum feeding values for varying sites and farming enterprises.

Although there would be a number of good to favourable sites in the region - indeed, I have been reporting for five years on a quite superb site at Bridgwater - the biggest proportion would have to be classed as marginal - for varying reasons.

Some sites would be exposed to prevailing south westerly winds, with others being on high ground, heavy soils that take much longer to warm up and those sites that are more easterly facing and ultimately get much reduced heat units and as a general rule, most sites in south and east Devon, Dorset, Somerset and Wiltshire would benefit from more heat units than those sites that could be classed within a more "maritime" climate, i.e. sites that do not suffer from prolonged periods of cold weather during the winter or experience prolonged periods of hot weather during the summer months.

During the previously mentioned four good growing years of 2003-06 when we experienced above average heat units for the whole region, farmers were successfully harvesting crops by late September or very early October with both dry matters and starch levels all in excess of 30% - even on marginal sites - but unfortunately four years of success inevitably encouraged a level of complacency.

Some farmers subsequently tried to cut corners by purchasing later and cheaper maize varieties, were not as meticulous as, perhaps, they should have been with seedbed preparation and because of the huge increase in fertilisers this year, MAP or DAP was in some cases, often ignored - the results of which have been quite evident on crops that we have been asked to visit when trying to evaluate what is actually going wrong and, equally important, why!

I do not wish in any way to appear simplistic, but the two bad growing years of 2007 and 2008 must surely serve as a reminder that we just cannot afford to take any liberties with this crop - assuming you still want between 5.0 and 6.0 tonnes of dry matter per acre in the clamp at 30% starch. Perhaps next year, you should consider going back to basics and grow the crop as you would have done as a first year grower. You didn't cut any corners then with either the variety, seedbed preparation or agronomy, so please don't now!

Assume that you will get another bad year next year and prepare accordingly and if we do indeed end up with three bad years in succession, you will know that you've done your best. If, however, we experience a somewhat better year, your yields and quality will surely benefit.

We kicked off the year by reporting the progress on five sites throughout the region - three marginal sites in Devon and Cornwall, a mainstream/favourable site in Somerset with an intermediate to marginal site in Dorset.

Cornwall Farmers Site, Tregony, near Truro

Thirteen varieties from four different plant breeders were drilled at 42,500 seeds per acre on May 9 and harvested on October 22 - harvesting being three days later than 2007 and 17 days later than 2006. Destiny (just the earliest), Hawk and Sapphire were the only varieties that achieved dry matters in excess of 30%, the remaining pack of ten ranging from Crescendo at 28.29% down to D60 at 22.78%, with Kaspian joining Destiny, Hawk and Sapphire (top with 34.66%) as being the only varieties that achieved starch levels in excess of 30% - the others ranging from Adept at 29.81% to D60 at 16.73%. All varieties had been "touched" with eyespot on October 8 which had progressed quite significantly across the board during the two weeks leading up to harvest.

Mole Valley Farmers Site, Newquay

16 varieties from four different plant breeders were drilled at 42,500 seeds per acre on May 6 and harvested on October 25 - 24 days later than last year. Unfortunately, when we did the final crop inspection prior to harvest on October 8, the whole site had been badly hit with eyespot and consequently, dry matters were artificially enhanced with only ES Agreement and Edenstar recording levels just below 30% - the rest ranging from 33% up to 48.91% and although this would appear to suggest extreme earliness, I would not wish anyone to be guided on the dry matter readings alone as the stovers on all 16 varieties were virtually dead as a result of the eyespot, but the following starch comments are much more statistically significant.

There were eight varieties that achieved starch levels in excess of 30% namely Artist, Fabius, Toccata, Kingdom, Kroesus, Kaspian, Chalice and Acclaim - in that order - with the remaining eight varieties ranging between Kougar at 29.13% down to Nimrod at 20.88%.

Advanta Site, Shebbear, W Devon

An extremely marginal site that was chosen for the first time this year for that very reason, but unfortunately, it has backfired on us a wee bit as a severe eyespot infection virtually across the board resulted in us pulling the plug on September 8. It was bitterly disappointing for farmer and contractor Rodney Diamond and his efforts this spring were greatly appreciated - maybe we can get another field set up for 2009??

Mole Valley Farmers Site, Bridgwater, Somerset

Nineteen varieties from seven different plant breeders were drilled at 45,000 seeds per acre on May 7 and harvested on May October 10 - seven days later than last year. With the site being so favourable, varieties can be chosen for yield as well as maturity and, as such, will comment accordingly.

Seven varieties recorded dry matters in excess of 30% with Acclaim being the highest at 33.65% and even though this was a poor year overall, it was still quite surprising that as many as 12 varieties were below 30% - although there were three that were between 29% and 30%. Chalice and Aurelia were the only varieties that gave dry matter yields of over 6.5 tonnes per acre with Toccata and NK Paddy just below at 5.9 and 5.8 tonnes respectively. There were five varieties achieving starch levels of 30% or more with the highest being Kingdom at 35.03%, with a further three varieties recording levels of between 29% and 30%. Chalice, Aurelia and Toccata all recorded starch yields of virtually two tonnes per acre.

Pearce Seeds Sites, Dorset.

I have been asked to comment on their two main forage maize trial sites - namely a relatively marginal site near Gillingham and a really favourable site at Bridport.

The Gillingham site was drilled on May 13 using 16 varieties which were harvested on October 16. The top three varieties on dry matter were Kentaurus (25.7%), Kaspian (25%) and Destiny (24.2%) - the mean being 21.4%, with the top three varieties on starch being Ixxes (31.6%), Kaspian (27.3%) and Kentaurus (25.5%) - with the mean being 14.6%.

The Bridport site was drilled on May 19 using 19 varieties and were harvested on October 23 - the mean dry matter yield being 5.36 tonnes per acre. The top two varieties on dry matter percentage were Kentaurus and Kaspian with 45.3% and 44.6% respectively - the mean being 35.0%, with the top three varieties on starch being Ixxes at 37.6%, with Secret (Poncho dressed) and Kougar at 36.5%. The crop was not infected with eyespot in any way at all and therefore the high dry matter percentages were all in their own right, so, theoretically, it might be argued that the trials could have been harvested a wee bit earlier. However, due to unfavourable weather and field conditions at the time, an earlier harvest was virtually impossible.

A lengthy report certainly - a useful report hopefully, but the year and the trials really does endorse the message that we have all been bleating about for years and that is that forage maize really does have the potential to provide you with high dry matter yields with quite superb quality, but you cannot afford to cut corners. It is a crop that really does respond well to good management and agronomy and is yet another example of 'attention to detail'' being absolutely paramount.

Happy Christmas.