Friday, October 19, 2018

Crop establishment key for successful maize

March 8, 2017 by  
Filed under Profiles


As maize drilling approaches, Simon Wragg visits a Herefordshire contractor who is ahead of the game with planting techniques.

Herefordshire contractor John Helme is keen to keep investigating opportunities such as drilling direct into cereal stubble to preserve soil organic matter and improving fertiliser application techniques within a business that’s focused on maize, fodder beet and manure spreading for four decades.

The business T & JT Helme was set up by his father, Tom, before his son joined him in 1972 straight from Harper Adams Agricultural College, Shropshire. “I was disappointed amenity rather than agriculture was our mainstay, but even back then opportunities to get into farming were limited,” he reflects.

Based at Wormelow and now run with his wife, Sally, the business employs three full-time staff – foreman Tim Hinksman, Keith Price, and Steve Bevan plus Morris Harper and a further three self-employed operators at peak times. March sees planting start in earnest for fodder beet ahead of maize which continues into June.

As a contractor he’s aimed to be ahead of the game with planting techniques. He says: “I offered an opportunity to drill maize under plastic before other operators took it on and it became popular. Advances in varieties and agronomy have made it less attractive given the cost involved.”

Nest of nutrients

Crop nutrition remains an area of interest. “It’s well documented maize responds to fertiliser up to the six-leaf stage. The difficulty is how to apply it without causing canopy burn. We’ve looked at creating a nest of nutrients next to the root mass using a applicator in the form of a large wheel, but it’s technology that’s yet to be taken up.”

More tangible developments are already in use. Both the firm’s two Gaspardo six-row maize drills and a 12-row Herriau beet drill can handle micro granular and bulk fertiliser during planting (the business is an agency for Nickerson seeds) allowing growers to benefit from the latest agronomic advice.

“With min-till becoming more desirable to protect soil organisms and structure there could be the opportunity to direct drill into cereal stubble,” he explains. “The concern is that of all the forage crops maize is the most vulnerable to poor soil structure.

“Tackling compaction ahead of the drill could alleviate that which is partly why we’ve invested in an auto re-set sub-soiler.” Direct drilling has some way to go before being adopted widely, he admits, but so did planting under plastic at one time.

Biggest development

“Perhaps our biggest development has been the purchase of a pre-production prototype Krone 580 self-propelled forager to harvest a range of forages for livestock farmers and operators of AD plants,” he suggests.

A key feature is the use of six rather than four feed rollers to present material from the header to the 18 or 36-knife precision chopping drum delivering a uniform forage, he suggests.

“We target a chop length of 6-8mm for AD users – longer for livestock feed – and the technology copes well with differences in how material is presented to the cutters; maize comes stalk first whereas whole-crop is less consistent.”

For clamping operations a JCB 418 pivot-steer loader fitted with dual wheels and a folding 14ft buck-rake is used to keep apace with the Krone.

Aside from maize the other key harvesting service is lifting fodder beet. “We run a self propelled Holmer Terra Dos – the Rolls Royce of harvesters. The machine’s four wheel steer and centre articulation allows it to run dog leg left or right up a field distributing its weight evenly.

“The ability to open up a field in any direction is valued most in a difficult year. We start lifting in October and run through to March across a range of soil types and terrain from Herefordshire, into mid Wales and across the West Midlands – a radius of 40 miles.”

Protect soils

Other machinery purchasing decisions have been influenced by a desire to protect soils. A fleet of 30-series John Deere 50kph tractors are preferred offering the nimbleness needed to negotiate undulating fields, narrow lanes and copious amounts of road work across the operation.

“We’ve also invested in four 17t Smyth trailers which feature floatation tyres, steering axle and single rather than dual rams (reducing tip times). They also sit that bit lower improving stability.”

The business has also gained a reputation for applying solid and liquid manures efficiently and effectively, he explains. “I would say we cannot be touched locally.

“Over the years I’ve learnt so much about spread patterns of different manures from static testing. This has determined alterations made to our machines to get an even, accurate application.

“For example, you can have 50t of dry poultry litter but left outside it may become 80t with rainfall. It will spread differently but you still have to handle it as 50t as the rest is, in essence, just water.”

Other operations such as slurry spreading using a Joskin 14,000-litre tanker with 12m dribble boom, floatation tyres and steering axle, hedge-cutting and round baling complete the business’ portfolio of services. Fertiliser spreading and spraying are offered ‘in house’ using other trusted contractors while local engineer Steve Methven of Orcop is valued highly undertaking fabrication and repairs.

“Across the board – whether for livestock or AD use – growers want to get the best from their crops,” says Mr Helme. “And as a contractor there’s nothing more rewarding than knowing you’ve done a job right.”

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