Drought – what drought?
Please allow me to refresh your memories. April was quite a dry month – not particularly warm due to the easterly winds, but dry and sunny nevertheless, resulting in quite a large acreage of maize being drilled up to a couple of weeks earlier than the ‘norm’. This pattern continued into May with the winds sweeping around more to the prevailing south west and therefore becoming warmer and the occasional shower was keeping everything warm, lush and tickety-boo. June was quite a wonderful month – indeed “flaming”, but as the month progressed, we were all becoming just that little bit concerned over the lack of rainfall and although the maize was really romping away – at least on the fields where you worked hard, spent a bit more time and created a good seedbed – grass fields were drying out and by the time we had got into early July, grass growth had virtually stopped altogether and the major topic of conversation largely revolved around whether or not we were in for another drought. Maize continued to motor along.

Then along came a really rainy day – quite welcome with farmers, horticulturalists, gardeners – you name them – they were all happy – until they saw the date. Yep, it was July 15, St Swithin’s Day and you all know the rest. Browned off grass fields started to green up, cereals were flattened and the maize continued to grow.

It certainly has been a good year for maize, at least so far anyway. At the time of writing, most crops will still be up to four weeks away and as we all know from past experience, nature can be a little unpredictable at times – it’s female – so don’t take anything for granted. Yields are looking good and overall, most crops are up to 14 days earlier or ahead that of last year so at this stage, there is the opportunity to use those 14 days to increase your overall dry matter content and get the best of both worlds in both yield and quality.

Last Friday, September 3, we did a whistle stop check on a number of the maize trial sites that I have been reporting on with a view to giving you an idea of where the maturity is followed by a predicted harvest date. I will also describe the site in as much detail as possible in order that you can then make your own comparisons. The material used in the trial sites was largely chosen by the individual distributor, but we did use the variety Nimrod – not as a control – but as being the common denominator – and something we could make comparisons against.

Cornwall Farmers Site, Tregony, Near Truro
Although this site has been previously described as being on the marginal side, the “year” has thrown up some pretty interesting observations and at this stage, I can confidently predict that this site is behaving more akin to that of an intermediate site and ‘should’ be ready for harvesting by the end of September. Eight varieties were drilled on May 5 with the three most advanced being Sapphire, Hawk and Vivacity – in that order – with Mighty, Nigella and Claxxon being the most immature. This site is south facing, approximately 250 ft above sea level and is very close to the sea and despite being exposed to sea breezes at times, harvesting will be significantly earlier than last years October 23.

Mole Valley Farmers Site, North Cornwall
This is another marginal site with a slight south easterly slope and is in excess of 400 ft above sea level. Twenty one varieties were drilled on May 10 and at this stage, Acclaim was the most advanced, followed by Toccata and Nimrod with Ultrastar, Dominator, Paddy and Aurelia being the most immature. Although there was a good degree of yellowing in the earliest varieties, we believe that harvesting would still be at least a month off.

Cornwall Farmers Site, Ashwater, West Devon
This is the second year that we have used this site and was chosen deliberately because it is so marginal and provides a golden opportunity for material to really justify their “very early” tag. The site lies at 630 ft above sea level, has a south to south easterly slope with quite wonderful views over Dartmoor.

Eight varieties were drilled on April 27 – and although being virtually a fortnight before the previously aforementioned site in North Cornwall, the cobs, in the main, were still white and immature, with only Sapphire, Hawk and Vivacity showing a slight yellowing in the cobs. Realistically, this site is at least six weeks off harvesting and could still be later yet depending on weather conditions in the meantime. With predicted harvesting being at least two weeks later than North Cornwall and not forgetting that it was drilled two weeks earlier, this site must be up to four weeks later than North Cornwall overall.

Mole Valley Farmers Site, Bridgwater
This is an extremely favourable site which lies on the Somerset levels with a deep peaty soil. Twenty eight varieties were drilled on May 6 with farmer Mike Pople describing this years crop as being “Mega”. Predicted yields are around 25 tonnes per acre and should be harvested during the third week of September.

Pearce Seeds Sites
My thanks, once again, goes to Robert Baker, Maize Trials Officer for Pearce Seeds who reports as follows: “Crops are a good deal more advanced than at this time last year, but if the more forward ones are reported to be 26 per cent dry matter, then they have at least two weeks to go before they achieve the 30 per cent DM.

There is a lot of juice in the stems and unless the soil is very dry, the speed of dry down depends more on local weather conditions. Farmers should be encouraged to wait until crops dry down, mature and starch is fully formed before they cut in order to get the best value – especially in a year of forage shortage. They need the dry matter – not the water. Trial sites are nowhere near it yet.”

By the time you are reading this over your morning coffee, on or around October 1, it is fair to assume that some early crops on early sites will already have been harvested, but over the years, October has proved to be the busiest month for harvesting. If we do get half decent weather over the next few weeks, you should be ending up with both dry matter and starch levels in excess of last years figures, plus a yield increase, but please, do not be tempted into going too early – especially if weather conditions are on your side. Ideally, you are looking to get whole plant dry matters around 33 per cent to 35 per cent with starch levels in excess of 30 per cent. I know that in most cases there are still a few weeks to go yet, but things do look quite promising. Don’t spoil it for a few days.

And finally:
When you eventually do harvest your maize and there is still the ‘window of opportunity’, do please consider planting a following crop of either Italian Ryegrass, ryecorn or winter wheat. The Italian Ryegrass and ryecorn will provide really useful early spring grazing next year or can be big baled in order to supplement summer grazings (Imagine how helpful that would have been this year), whilst you have the option of either whole-cropping or combining the winter wheat. Environmentally, it is also good farming practice, as these crops will mop up excess nitrogen and help prevent soil erosion during the winter months.