While sowing grass alongside maize has had a lot of coverage recently, it has mainly been a two-step process. However, one Staffordshire farming and contracting outfit has developed a one-pass operation establishing both
crops simultaneously. Alex Heath finds out more.
As the benefits of companion cropping maize with grass continues to be realised and explored, farmers and contractors interested in the method are then faced with two critical options; when to sow the companion crop and how to sow it.
However, with only a small number of machines on the market which can do this, options are currently limited. As such, and as we have already reported, some farmers and contractors have taken it upon themselves to create their own bespoke machines, suited to their individual circumstances.
For father and son duo Andrew and Rob Moore, of Moores Agricultural Contracting, Longdon Green, Staffordshire, building a one-pass system in-house has seen them take a holistic view to companion cropping, combining machinery, crop husbandry and agronomy.
Andrew says: “Sowing grass alongside maize has really taken off in the past couple of years and we have had farmers and our local water board approach us on the subject.
“From a farmer’s standpoint, maintaining soil structure for harvesting the maize and subsequent stubble and soil management are their main priorities. While our local water board, South Staffs Water, has concerns about nitrates leaching into the watercourses, with bare maize stubble fields a focus over winter.
“So we set about researching the viability of overseeding grass seed. After some time, we thought what is stopping us from putting grass down at the same time as the maize by undersowing.
“This is a new method of doing it and has taken some careful research on the best varieties of maize and grass as well as the nutrition of the crop and by no means least, an effective method of getting the grass sown. Why go in the field twice when you can do it in one pass?”
Rob says: “Last year I planted 300 acres as a trial to see if the system had a detrimental effect on the maize, as that is the priority of farmers. It did not. On side by side fields, yields were identical, but travelling was easier on the undersown fields. Likewise, the amount of soil brought out of fields was reduced.
“By getting the grass into an optimum seed bed, it has a head start over other overseeding methods, by about six weeks. However, this is where the agronomy plays its part. Whereas ryegrass would be used if applied after maize emergence, we have worked with Luke Hardy at Agrovista to find grass varieties better suited to this application.
“He suggested using fescue varieties that put a rootball mass down before developing leaf area, giving the maize the time it needs to get its canopy up and away. This grass type binds the soil together well and provides a large amount of organic matter.”
Andrew adds: “We roll our maize and grass in, creating a surface that is ideal for pre- and post-emergence sprays, while breaking down any clods exposes weed seeds, keeping fields cleaner. By not going through with a separate machine to sow the grass, less soil is disturbed.
“However, our system is not for everyone. If there is a grass-weed problem, such as black-grass, it is better to oversow at a later date, where more herbicides can be used to tackle the problem, but we rarely encounter this on dairy and mixed farms.”
Based on the business’ trailed Vaderstad Tempo 8F planter, the team at Benbrook Farm has developed a bolton solution to establish the grass. “We are applying three products at once with the Tempo,” says Andrew. “Maize seed, fertiliser and grass seed can all be put down in one go and because we are utilising the components already on the planter, everything is IsoBus controlled and on section control.”
Key to the system is making use of the micro granular fertiliser tanks. Rob says: “Some customers used micro granular fertiliser, but if we are undersowing grass seed, we are unable to, so it is simpler if big bag fertiliser is used.
“We used the micro granular applicators and made up hoses to distribute grass seed either side of the press wheels at the rear of the planter.”
Andrew says because the fan on the eight-row planter is the same as that of the 12-row version, extra air capacity allowed them to tap into the main duct and syphon some off which is then directed to each row with a new distribution head.
Travelling through the hoses which are joined together with off the-shelf water fittings, the seed is blown onto the ground. Following each row is a set of 6mm harrow tines that cover the seed with soil.
Downforce is provided by the channel that supports them, pivoting at the front where it is bolted onto the press wheel assembly. Initially, the tine holder was supported from one side, however, it suffered twisting so a second arm has been added, providing strength and rigidity. Importantly, the press wheel creates a natural wall which contains the grass seed at least 150mm away from the maize rows.
This is imperative for the growing maize crop, as UV radiation is reflected from the ground to the underside of the maize leaf. Rob says on good seed beds, 3kg of seed is enough to ensure even establishment of the grass and on those that are more cloddy, it is upped to 5kg.
“We charge £5-£6 per acre to drill the grass seed at the same time as the maize and seed costs the farmer about £5/kg. If you go in at a later date, drilling costs are higher as it is a separate operation and the seed rate is substantially higher, making it a costlier option.”
Andrew says some farmers are undersowing their whole maize area this year and the business’ workbook for undersowing is growing substantially. With a few modifications to be made to the system for this campaign, he reckons there is a market for them to make and supply the component parts to other Tempo F users.
As the planter used by the business has a horizontal folding mechanism, rather than the vertical mechanism of mounted versions, they are yet to look at undersowing solutions for that. In all, Andrew says development of the system has cost in the region of £10,000 but the results are already visible.
Since 2015, Agrovista agronomist Luke Hardy has been involved in developing grass varieties that are specifically suited to sowing alongside maize.
He says: “Each year we have been working with Reaseheath College, Cheshire, to determine the best way of undersowing or oversowing maize. Having used a multitude of varieties and species, we are 95 per cent of the way on the development of varieties we know will work.
“While ryegrass varieties work best when overseeding, a slower growing variety is needed to be planted at the same time, leading us to tall fescues and advanced tall fescues as found in our TechniSward – Soil Max seed mix,” he says.
The system of sowing grass at the same time will not work for every farm he says.
“For mixed farms, it is the ideal way of getting grass in as there is less chance the growing maize will be disturbed, either run over or the rows compacted. In addition, if the ground is good to get maize growing, grass will grow too. Leave it for six weeks and excessive rain or a prolonged dry spell will hamper germination.
“However, on farms where there is a large grass-weed problem, such as with bromes or blackgrass, overseeding at the 6-8 leaf stage is the best course as a spray can be used earlier on to tackle the weed varieties.”
Leaving a strip at least 150mm wide either side of the maize is imperative for its growth says Mr Hardy, as utraviolet radiation is reflected from the soil to the underside of the leaf. If grass is broadcast or sown too tight to the maize, it blocks this reflection and will lead to poor growth.
He says that from trials,100- 149kg/hectare (40-60kg/acre) of nitrogen is captured by the grass, and this can be incorporated back into the soil for the following crop.