IT is now the beginning of March and already a number of you are planning your cropping programmes - not just for next winter's feeding but also supplementary crops for grazing during the coming summer and autumn.

There are a number of options available to you, but as you are probably all aware, every option is not suitable to each and every one, so a bit of careful planning and perhaps a chat with your agronomist should help toward making the right decision as to what you can and cannot grow on your farm.

Once having established the crops that you can successfully grow and before making a decision, you may also like to consider the set of figures below that have been compiled by Kingshay Farming Trust and sponsored by Limagrain (formerly Advanta), in which a number of forage crops and grass systems have been evaluated in terms of dry matter yield, growing costs, quality, cost per tonne of UDM (Utilized Dry Matter) and probably the most important of all, the cost of milk production in pence per litre and per kilo of liveweight gain.

The tables themselves have been abbreviated from the original as I wanted to concentrate on crops that will be considered for earlier sowings and subsequently, a number of grass silage systems have been excluded, plus crops such as stubble turnips and forage rape which will be featured in a later article and once having taken on board all the figures, it should come as no surprise to anyone at all that grazed grass with a 20% inclusion of white clover - and to be commented upon in much greater detail in a later issue of the diary - provides the cheapest source of food for both milk and meat production and if it's surprises that you're after, perhaps a glance at the figures attributed to 'the old faithfuls'' of forage crops might just suffice.

Sown from April - July and grazed from September - March, this is a high yielding (3 tonnes UDM/acre), high quality forage crop with crude protein levels close to 17 per cent. Low cost of production and very low costs of UDM, resulting in one of the cheapest sources of food production for both milk and meat. There are some new and exciting varieties on the market which have been bred specifically for our climate including material that offer club root resistance (Grampian).

Sown from May to early July, this crop can produce very high yields of top quality forage of up to 2.6 tonnes of UDM/acre - D Values and ME's being virtually on a par with fodder beet. Although the cost of UDM is the lowest at £55 per tonne, this crop has waned in popularity over the years - even though it can provide top quality grazings for both sheep and cattle from October - March. Some excellent new material on the market which offers good disease and club root resistancy e.g. Gowrie and Lomond, with invitation proving to be one of the best for post Christmas grazings due to its winter hardiness.

Summer Turnips
Sown in late May, summer turnips can yield up to 2.1 tonnes of UDM/acre with a crude protein content of up to 17%.

Excellent digestibility and overall quality which can be grazed during July and August, with a typical variety being Tyfon - which is a cross between stubble turnips and Chinese Cabbage and has the potential of offering some re-growth.

Fodder Beet
With yields approaching 40 tonnes of fresh weight per acre and ME's of up to 13.5, it's no wonder that this crop has recently experienced a bit of a resurgence in popularity with plant breeders reporting quite a significant increase in the market with a similar increase being anticipated for this year as well.

It is a crop that really does respond well to good management and you can expect that your agronomist will be keeping quite a close eye on progress throughout the season. If your main criteria is yield, then a variety such as Robbos (formerly Maestro) would fit the bill, but if you or your contractor are restricted to top lifting machines, then Blaze would be an ideal choice as it has a much higher percentage of bulb out of the ground and is therefore easier to lift and cleaner.

Fodder Beet could now be a realistic option for those farmers who experienced high levels of eyespot in their maize over the past couple of years and are reluctant to continue because of the high levels of infestation - in fact those farmers who grew both maize and fodder beet last year on sites that subsequently became infected with eyespot, reported that it was the fodder beet that came out tops - and by quite a margin!!

There are other forage crops which can fit into your rotation such as forage rape and stubble turnips, but as they tend to be sown after stubbles, they will be commented upon a bit later. Forage peas are also quite popular, but unfortunately, I understand that seed is in extremely short supply. However, if you can get hold of any, grab them before it's too late!!

A high yielding and extremely palatable crop and despite two really awful years, the maize market is still expected to grow again this year. Extensive research and investments into plant breeding has resulted in maize being successfully grown on quite marginal sites and even here, farmers, in most years, can realistically expect five tonnes of DM/acre at 30% whole plant dry matter and 30% starch, with growers on more favourable sites achieving significantly more than that. Whilst the initial costs of establishing the crop can appear to be high, the potential returns are more than worthwhile and with fertilizer prices still on the high side, appropriate amounts of farmyard manures and slurry - applied at the most opportune time, can significantly reduce costs.

It is vital that you seek your agronomist's opinion over the choice of fields for maize as he/she may feel that some are too marginal and that you should choose an alternative crop - even grass, but once you have made the decision, the next one is what varieties you will grow - and this could prove to be difficult as there are probably close to 100 that you could choose from - so how do you know which one is best for you??

One of the best ways is your own experience, followed by neighbouring experience and advice. Material that is recommended by your agronomist is always a good bet as they will be monitoring the crop throughout the season and cannot afford to get it wrong.

My general advice would be to stick with the NIAB First Choice List on Less Favourable Sites and go for something from maturity class 8 and above - that's a choice of 24 varieties - even then, there is an argument that you could further fine tune your choice to varieties from plant breeders whose portfolio has been specifically bred for and consistently performed well in our ever changing and marginal growing conditions. Otherwise, choose varieties that have performed year in, year out, despite what nature threw at it at times.

Next month's diary will be devoted exclusively to maize agronomy - from choice of field to harvesting and ensiling.