This has probably been the most challenging maize growing year in memory, writes Hefin Richards of Profeed Nutrition Consultancy.
Wet soils, delayed drilling and germination, followed by slow and variable growth will undoubtedly lead to significant issues in terms of maize yields and quality as we head towards harvest.
The variability in crop yields and stage of maturity will mean that harvest decisions will be more difficult than ever. With varietal, field and drilling date differences, the likelihood of being able to find a single harvest date for all fields is slim. Maximising the potential of the crop will be more critical than ever bearing in mind the cost of replacement feeds or starch energy. The aim should be to get to 30 to 33 per cent dry matter and harvest a crop with a developed cob and digestible leaf and stem portion, and this is likely to mean different harvest dates for different fields.
Reports of early eyespot infection in some crops is all we need, and again this could mean that some crops will need to be harvested based on level of disease and senescence. Where there is major variation within fields it makes things even more difficult, but essentially the aim should be to target the optimum harvest date for the best part of the field.
Remember, harvesting too early will lead to very low starch levels, and high acid loads; too late means lower starch and fibre digestibility. In crops where grain is well developed, ensure that corn crackers are doing their job by checking loads as they arrive at the clamp – this is not the year to be losing starch through poor harvester setup!
Headers are likely to be set low as growers look to maximise harvested yield, and the base of the plant is generally wetter and has lowest digestibility so will dilute starch and ME value. Fungal disease on crops will also increase the risk of mycotoxins in the silage, so be aware of likely symptoms and consider using an effective mycotoxin binder to evaluate response over 10 to 14 days once cows are settled on maize based diets. Supplementing low starch levels using wheat is generally straightforward, but low bushel weight grain will have a lower starch content and small shrivelled grains are notoriously difficult to process leading to losses – bread, potatoes and barley may actually be a more effective solution this year.
Where overall forage stocks are an issue, action needs to be taken sooner rather than later by carrying out a forage budget and sticking to it. In housed herds, the shortfall may only become evident next summer, so sowing wheat for wholecropping next July after maize harvest is an option which will replenish stocks mid-summer.
With forage quantity and quality issues on many farms and expensive purchased feeds, this is not the winter to carry passengers in the herd. Look hard at the bottom end of your herd and consider culling problem or low producing cows early. Heifers and dry cows can be fed high straw diets to conserve silage, but it is important to plan rations to ensure that growth targets are met and calving cows enter the herd with minimal problems.
This winter is likely to be challenging, but with margins under pressure, planning and monitoring will be more critical than ever.
* Hefin Richards of Profeed Nutrition Consultancy is based near Oswestry, covering the Midlands and Wales.