Remedial work needed to reset maize ground

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Effective soil preparation will be vital to help this year’s maize crops get off to the best possible start. That is according to ProCam’s Simon Montgomery, who warns that the exceptionally wet winter could have done significant damage to land earmarked for maize.

“After several months of waterlogged conditions soils will need a lot of work to get them into the best possible condition ahead of drilling,” he explains.

The main effects of the winter’s remarkably wet conditions will be soil compaction, silting and nutrient losses.

“Soil compaction will be especially bad on ground which was harvested in wet conditions last autumn, or where farmyard manure has been carted onto wet fields in readiness for spring spreading. The wet conditions will also have caused valuable nutrients to be leached out of the soils, and for those left bare over the winter to silt up and become anaerobic.

“The extent of the damage will vary from field to field and according to topography and soil type, but it’s safe to assume that the majority of maize ground will need at least some remedial management to ensure the new cropping cycle starts well.

“The quickest, simplest and most cost-effective way of determining soil condition is to grab a spade and dig a test pit in a handful of locations per field.”

Beyond visual inspections to assess the physical damage incurred, Mr Montgomery, also recommends soil sampling to understand the extent to which nutrients have been lost: “Residual nutrient reserves will have been depleted by leaching, so it’s a worthwhile investment to get soils tested properly,” he explains. “The key is to test not only for soil-stock nutrient levels of the main macro-and micro-nutrients but also to test for plant-available nutrients. Analytical services such as SoilSense test will give a more in-depth understanding of the soil, its potential, and how it should be managed.”

Mr Montgomery appreciates the urge to start fieldwork, especially as workloads are already under pressure but stresses it doesn’t make sense to travel on land until it is able to withstand heavy machinery. “Where possible, wait for the conditions to improve sufficiently. Otherwise, there’s a danger of inflicting further damage onto already compromised soils.”

When conditions are right, growers should focus on aerating soils to remediate the anaerobic conditions. “Incorporating manure will help to improve soil structure, but the worst affected ground might require an extra cultivation pass to break up the more severe cases of compaction or silting. Either way, there’s no point skimping at this stage in proceedings.”

Mr Montgomery concludes that workload planning could also be a challenge this spring. “Cropping schedules and workloads are likely to be significantly hampered this spring, especially if conditions remain cool and wet for the next few weeks. There’s a danger that this year’s window for maize drilling could coincide with other key tasks.

“If drilling is delayed by more than a week, a starter fertiliser will help the crop to catch up, but growers might also want to look at a slightly later variety of maize to suit the season’s conditions. However, there’s always a chance that the most popular varieties will sell out, so plan ahead wherever possible.

“Undersowing maize with ryegrass or Westerwolds to protect soils at harvest, and to produce a secondary forage crop, is also worth considering this year, especially if harvesting is likely to be pushed back as a result of late drilling. Grass seed can be sown between the rows of maize when the main crop is at the 4-6 leaf stage and after weeds such as fat hen and redshank have been taken out.”

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