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Maize eclipses traditional crops with boosted returns and yield

Patrick O'Neill during the harvesting of his on-farm grain trail, autumn 2007

Maize eclipses traditional crops with boosted returns and yield

2006/07 Season

Owners: Maewa Station
Farm location: Rangitikei
Farm size: 103 hectares
Pioneer® brand hybrids grown: 38P05, 38B85, 38T27, 36M28 (silage)
Number of seasons growing: 3

Diminishing returns from growing small cereal crops in the Rangitikei had Patrick O'Neill seeking an alternative and more lucrative crop to grow four seasons ago.

The family farming partnership, Maewa Station, had been growing wheat and barley for 25 years, so the cropping knowledge in the family was significant. The challenge however, was to find a crop that would deliver consistently high yields and solid returns, if cropping was to remain a core component of the farm's income.

Patrick's experience growing maize for silage in the very dry 1999-2000 season was the catalyst for him to consider including maize for grain in the cropping programme. In that season, the crop had yielded an impressive 22 tDM/ha, despite the difficult conditions.

"We knew that if maize would yield that well for silage, then no doubt it would yield well for grain too."

The first grain crop in 2005 confirmed this, with early maturing Pioneer® brand 38P05 achieving an impressive yield of 14.9 t/ha.

The 2006-2007 season saw the family partnership plant 80 ha of maize for grain, spread between 51 ha of 38P05, 22 ha of 38B85 and 7 ha of 38T27.

In the 2005-2006 season, the O'Neills won the Regional Cup in the Manawatu-Rangitikei Pioneer Maize for Grain Yield Competition, a very creditable achievement after such a short time in the industry, but reflective of the high level of cropping skill Patrick had acquired over the years with wheat and barley.

The planting of 38T27 delivered a yield over 16 t/ha, achieving what Patrick described as an "exceptionally" good yield in a whole paddock scenario.

Patrick's inclusion of maize in the cropping operation has seen him stick to some simple, consistent practices to achieve high yielding crops.

"There is simply no substitute for good and thorough seed bed preparation," he says.

A well planned soil fertility programme for the maize paddocks is part of his careful preparation for the crop.

"We soil test every year and will not plant in anything with a pH less than 6, and an Olsen P level any lower than the mid-20s."

Patrick likes to observe a minimum of four weeks fallow post ploughing, with ploughing starting any time from mid-August on.

Soil temperatures at sowing need to be 12 degrees Celsius and rising, while he aims to have the crop in within the first week in October.

Ploughing is followed by a power harrow with a pre-ripper on the front of the tractor. A second pass will be made if required.

This last season he used a new post emergent herbicide known as Callisto. "The results have been unbelievable," he says.

Capitalising on Pioneer's research into planting at higher densities and resulting increased yields, Patrick lifted his planting rate to 105,000 plants per ha, up from 95,000 per ha.

Historically crops were used in the family's sheep and beef business as part of the re-grassing programme, but Patrick believes continuous maize cropping now delivers better and more consistent returns.

He is confident that the lengthy fallow period allows the maize stubble to break down, such that maize can be continuously cropped.

Meanwhile new technologies like the Callisto spray and Pioneer's on-going product development and agronomy research programme will continue to deliver sustainably higher yields in to the future.

"The returns on maize far exceed what wheat or barley have ever done. We see maize playing an increasingly larger part in our business, for no more work than the previous crops required."

For the same reason, Patrick sees maize playing a greater role in other parts of the region as other farmers increasingly recognise the higher returns achieved with maize.

"A lot of the Class A quality soils of the region, including the Rangitikei river valley, offer huge potential for farmers looking to improve their returns, which maize will certainly allow them to do."