I first met Colin Latham (Latham Partners) in March 2006 when I was invited to look at his farm in N Devon and offer an opinion as to whether he could successfully grow maize.

Colin farms 750 acres – most of which is in excess of 500 feet and could quite easily be described as being ‘exposed’ – and although there were indeed a few fields that could grow maize in a reasonable to good year, I unfortunately did not believe that maize could be successfully grown on an on-going basis.

At this particular time, Colin had been growing about 30 acres of fodder beet each year but because of his stocking rates, he needed a much greater volume of high energy material but was reluctant to significantly increase this acreage as his feeding policy could be severely exposed should he experience a wet November – normal harvesting time for fodder beet. Several discussions, conversations and phone calls later, a decision was made to continue in the short term with fodder beet, but that he would also try a ‘small’ acreage of maize under ‘plastic’. The ‘small’ acreage in 2006 turned out to be 60 acres and, due to its success, quickly increased to 110 acres in 2009. And, for the past two years, he has grown all of 150 acres – the ‘plastic’ to which I have referred is actually a unique and specialist type of film.

The system that Colin has been employing is called the Samco System – something that has been invented and developed by Irish based company Samco, where a three-in-one maize drill is used, which sows seed; applies herbicide and lays degradable film all in just one operation. The film provides a micro climate for the maize seedlings, which allows for earlier drillings, earlier harvest dates and significantly increases both yield and quality of the crop.

Barry Mills from The Grain Maize Company who specialises in and distributes the Samco System in the south west, provides all the agronomy support and advice for Latham Partners. Barry attributes Colin’s success to his attention to detail ‘‘Using the Samco System does not guarantee results on its own,’’ said Barry, “crop rotation, seedbed preparation, plant nutrition, varietal selection, disease and weed control are all vital for overall success – especially in a marginal area. If management is relaxed only a little then results will ultimately suffer,’’ he said.

In addition to recommending material that will achieve the optimum dry matter and starch percentages, great emphasis is also placed on the overall energy production of the plant i.e. material that can achieve high levels of whole plant digestibility and therefore optimize megajoule output per acre with last year’s trial results showing a difference of virtually 13,000 MJ/acre between Kaspian – a leading very early variety and grown without film and the 5 Pioneer varieties that Samco recommend grown under film – this difference representing 2431 litres of milk per acre, which, at 25ppl, works out at an extra £607 per acre.

This was not a situation where Kaspian did poorly and was easily out performed by the Pioneer material grown with the Samco System – indeed, as both Colin and Barry Mills were keen to point out, Kaspian did extremely well with dry matter and starch levels in excess of 33 per cent - but it was the combination of very good quality plus, and quite frankly, a huge quantity that really did make the difference in favour of the Pioneer material grown under film – with this year’s figures endorsing last year’s results – the variety PR39T83 having to be seen to be believed with a typical 18 acre field yielding 24 tonnes of fresh weight per acre at 41.7% DM, 33.4% starch and 11.1 ME. That’s 10 tonnes of dry matter per acre – YES, you read that right – 10 tonnes PER ACRE, with starch levels of 3.3 tonnes per acre and energy production at 111,088 MJ/acre – a level that equates to 20,960 litres of milk per acre. Had I not seen this for myself last week, I wouldn’t have believed it and to be honest, some of you still won’t – we all accept that.

Chapel Farm is situated between Barnstaple and Ilfracombe with the maize ground lying around 550ft – 600ft. There are 850 head of stock which includes the dairy herd of 450 Holstein/Friesian cows with all heifer calves being kept on as eventual herd replacements and bull calves being sold as stores at Holsworthy Market around 16 months of age.

Due to the quite phenomenal success of maize under film, Colin Latham has now bought his own Samco 4 row drill which is used exclusively for his own maize drilling which this year started on April 8 and finishing four days later. Whilst acknowledging the edge that the film is obviously giving his maize, Colin is firmly of the opinion that attention to detail with seedbed preparation is absolutely vital if he really wants to maximize this edge – the two really do go together.

An in-depth soil analysis from Glenside is taken every year which includes the main trace elements for maize growing i.e copper – an important element for fertility and grain set, plus boron which is essential for starch production.

Appropriate levels of slurry are applied to all maize fields during early spring and is immediately incorporated into the soil by ploughing in order to prevent run-off and loss of nitrogen to the air. This is followed by one pass of a flat lift – a shallow sub soiler and then power harrowed. Fields are then left for at least a week in which to settle following which N,P and K levels are corrected by broadcasting straights, a further power harrow to maximum depth and then drilling.

A firm rotational policy on this farm means that by growing maize in the same fields for no more than two successive years, pests and diseases such as eyespot that are associated with maize can be kept to an absolute minimum. Fertility and high organic matter levels are also maintained. Maize usually follows five-year-old grass pastures, is down for two years and is then followed by winter wheat plus about 50 acres of a winter catch crop for sheep grazing which, in turn, is followed by a five-year ley.

Maize is usually harvested during October which this year was completed in six days starting on October 14 – the additive used being Biotal Maize Cool Gold.

The Oxenpark herd is kept in for 365 days a year and is fed maize all year round – the amounts depending on yield. The herd, which is split into two groups is averaging 8,800 litres with butterfat at 4.21 per cent and milk protein at 3.54 per cent. The high yielding herd is given 13 kgs of maize per day (5.5. kgs DM) and is fed to 35 litres, whilst the lower yielders are given 7 kgs of maize per day (3 kgs DM) and are fed to 22 litres – both groups being fed via a feeder wagon – indeed, the volume that is now produced enables Colin to feed maize to the heifers and steers.

In addition to home produced grass and maize silage plus cereals, the herd is also fed rapemeal, high pro soya, Megalac and minerals – all of which is supplied by Harpers Home Mix. Colin has now been growing maize under film for five years where he has enjoyed yields which have been consistently high in both quality and quantity and he is keen to point out that he has never had a failure – even in poor years. He accepts that there is an additional cost for growing maize under film – a figure that is usually put at around £100 per acre. He also accepts that this crop is by far and away the most expensive one to grow BUT with 10 tonnes of dry matter per acre at 11.1 ME, the cost of megajoule production is so competitive, it really does contribute a considerable amount to the bottom line.