Maximising returns from maize silage

Despite weather-related challenges during the planting period, early analysis indicates that this season’s maize crops have produced silages that are much better than expected. And with maize now safely in the clamp, it’s crucial that producers not only manage it correctly to maximise performance but also start planning how to improve next year’s cropping.

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A pattern of late maize plantings was repeated across the country this year, resulting in delayed flowering and crops having less time for grain filling and dry matter (DM) accumulation. But despite these challenges, early analysis of maize silages looks promising.

“A large proportion of maize crops were drilled after the 1st May, and at least half of that acreage after the 15th,” explains ForFarmers’ Forage Technical Manager, Alan Lockhart. “The weather post-sowing was generally favourable, but the delayed sowing dates inevitably led to crops flowering significantly later than usual.

“To compound the difficulties of the later season drilling, many growers were under pressure to harvest their maize as soon as possible to help address forage shortages, plant a follow-on crop, and avoid a deterioration in the weather. But despite these challenges, the silage analysis results we’re seeing are better than anticipated. Starch levels are generally good, with many silages testing out close to, or higher than, 30%.”

And while some ensiled crops are recording slightly suboptimal DM, below the 30% target rate, these lower values needn’t set any alarm bells ringing.

“I’ve seen examples this year where the cobs reached maturity, but the plant was still green, totally healthy and photosynthesising,” continues Alan. “When it came to ensiling these crops it can lead to lower DM levels, but ensiling a healthy plant, with high sugar levels benefits the fermentation process. These crops also have an increased percentage of digestible plant matter which is going to provide more energy to the cow.”

However, for some producers, especially those planting maize on a less favourable ground and harvesting maize early, clamping slightly immature crops will require careful balancing when feeding.

“When cut at a slightly physiologically immature state, it’s no surprise that this had a knock-on effect on maize yield and quality,” says Alan. “We’re also moving from feeding cows with silage produced in the hot, dry year of 2022 to the wetter silage of 2023. For nutritionists, it’s going to require a different approach to usual.”

Managing maize silage

Now that maize has been ensiled, it’s important to manage it correctly to maximise milk yields, quality and performance.

“The basics of good clamp management should always be in a producer’s mind, with the aim to minimise spoilage and losses, which can be as high as 20% in poorly managed clamps,” says Alan. “Once open, work across the face of the clamp quickly, using a sharp, well maintained shear grab and keep the base of the clamp free from muck and debris to avoid potential contamination.

“I would always recommend the use of an inoculant with maize silage. Time, money and effort has gone into growing maize and the use of an inoculant will help minimise losses and enhance quality – it’s the icing on the cake. Inoculants have been proven to help achieve even fermentation within the clamp, reduce spoilage, improve energy content, and reduce DM losses. Any spoiled silage that cannot be fed to cows adds to the cost of forage production per acre, resulting in a lower margin over purchased feed (MOPF) - a key indicator when assessing dairy herd performance.”

With many farms still recovering from low forage stocks caused by drought in 2022, there has been the temptation – or need – to feed maize out early this year. But Alan offers a word of caution.

“The maize that’s fed out early will give cows an early boost in energy and help to stimulate intakes – especially when we consider the lower energy values of some grass silages this year,” explains Alan. “However, it’s the maize that’s fed after Christmas that will provide the biggest performance benefits. This is when the starch will have become more rumen degradable.

“One way to help resolve this challenge in the future is to grow a mix of maize varieties on a farm, with some suited to producing silage for early feed out and the majority for later use.”

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Looking to next year

Flint and dent varieties of maize have different growth and fermentation characteristics in clamp and should be used in tandem to meet early and later season feed requirements.

“Dent varieties have a softer shell, so they will accelerate available starch faster in the clamp and still provide good levels of energy,” says Alan. “They should be harvested last and fed out first. The flint varieties have a harder shell, which takes longer to breakdown and for starch levels to become more rumen available. So, they should be harvested first and fed later.

“By taking this approach producers can achieve a balance between providing growing crops with adequate time to mature and optimum time to ferment in the clamp, while also having some good quality maize silage ready to feed out early, if needed.”

This mixed approach is just one of the elements that producers should start considering when planning their 2024 cropping.

“Considering the flint-dent split, producers should dedicate two thirds of maize acres to flint and, one third to dent, with P7034 from Pioneer being a tried and tested dent variety in the UK,” concludes Alan. “But another important consideration is to match maize’s maturity with your geographical area and weather conditions – both during the growing and predicted harvesting period.”

Maize variety selection for the 2024 season will, as ever, be a key consideration for maize growers. Alan, who covers the southern region of the UK, prefers to recommend varieties from a selection of Pioneer hybrids due to their superior plant health.

“Eyespot has become a seriously debilitating disease which rapidly accelerates premature deterioration of green foliage, shutting down photosynthesis and sugar transportation through the plant,” explains Alan. “That’s why I like the new early maturing Pioneer P7179 (FAO165) variety, with its vigorous early growth pattern helping form a healthy plant with huge stature.

“On some of the most challenging growing sites, the extra early Pioneer hybrid P7179 has given a DM content of 28% accompanied by an ME of more than 11 Mj kg/DM and starch above 30%.”

Once maize has been harvested, it’s also important that producers get a new crop into the field as soon as possible to help maintain the quality of maize growing land.

“This can be a short-term grass ley or even a later drilled winter wheat, but it is important to get something in the ground to help prevent nutrient leaching, soil erosion, and preserve soil structure,” concludes Alan. “Improving the quality of maize growing land in a rotation is key to sustaining good yields in the future.

“These rotations can be combined with SFI schemes, particularly SAM-2, which is currently worth £129 per hectare when drilling a two species crop after maize. And by drilling a cover crop at a decent rate, producers can also produce a useful source of early season silage or grazing to help supplement forage stores. It represents a win-win situation.”

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