Maize Investment Helps Improve Crop Consistency

October 2014

UK growers are set to gain from the early introduction of more consistent maize varieties as a result of a major investment in breeding and seed production activities.

That’s the claim of KWS which, on the back of a 15% growth in sales across Europe over the last two years, is ploughing money back into better testing and processing facilities.

According to UK country manager, Rob Hunt, KWS’s UK market share has grown on the back of new variety introductions to around 34% in 2014. This means that, along with Limagrain, two plant breeders provide around two-thirds of all maize varieties on UK farms.

“While other breeders are based further south in Europe, KWS has focused on N European conditions for over forty years now,” says Mr Hunt. “Our priority has been to maximise the ability of the cob to accumulate starch in difficult conditions and you can only properly assess this if you breed and screen maize in colder climates.

“In recent years we have taken clear strides forward in terms of early grain maturity and starch yield in varieties widely tested across the UK and elsewhere in N Europe.”

Mr Hunt says that this is resulting in maize varieties being introduced that can grow at lower temperatures below 10 degrees C and have the strong early development of the productive leaf canopy needed to make best use of whatever summer conditions prevail to optimise cob production.

“We’ve also recognised the need for better establishment on UK farms having focused on ultra early and early varieties with increasingly higher vigour scores,” he says.

Alongside this KWS also targets high productivity post flowering by selecting varieties where the plant is big enough and strong enough to support the production of as much starch as possible in the cob, before plant die back. “Without this, you end up with low dry matters, lower cob maturity and poorer feed value,” he points out.

In the UK, KWS invests in 6 trial sites maintained by Hunt AgriServices to provide data across all major maize growing regions of the UK. The trials mimic the protocols of the NIAB system and are extremely robust.

Europe-wide, KWS produces around 30,000ha of seed multiplication of around 220 different hybrids. Almost 30% of this is in France, which produces most seed destined for the UK, and which has recently benefited from a 15 million Euro investment in plant and machinery.

Buzet, near Bordeaux, for example, has an ideal mix of sandy soils and an equitable climate with 700mm rainfall, so has been a key production station for KWS since 2008. According to Gerard Gaignette – Buzet’s director of seed production - the region now produces around 3000ha of maize for KWS and this is expected to grow by around 20% by 2016.

“We work closely with around 160 small farms locally who have the knowhow and expertise to produce seed and who must also have the capability to apply around 2500 cubic meters of water to their maize seed crops every year.

KWS only produces hybrids and so crosses two genetically different adults in the field to provide 100% of seeds with the same genetic varietal purity. Males and females are drilled at separate timings to ensure pollination coincides – with males typically sown in every fifth and sixth row. “Crops planted at Buzet on May 1st will start to produce pollen after 55 days – by varying this we can ensure that dates coincide,” says Gerard. At pollination, the female flower is mechanically removed so there is no self-pollination.

Seed production at Buzet utilises a 200m exclusion zone between fields and in some countries KWS will also use a pollination barrier around the crop. Each year the plant at Buzet will produce seed for 70 varieties from 110 parents with yields at 3-5t/ha.

Cobs are harvested at 28-36% humidity and stored at 11% moisture. Seed is then separated from the cob spindle using sophisticated equipment that maintains the seed skin and quality, sorted using a colour sorter, before passing over a density table to grade for size.

“This latest technology ensures we discard poor seed and that which is diseased, helping enhance vigour and quality standards across seed lots,” says Gerard.


UK maize growers have crops that look set to break yield records; all we need now is adequate moisture and a continued run of days with high heat units.

That’s the view of KWS UK maize manager, John Burgess who says that average accumulated heat unit figures were around 20-35% higher that the ten year mean at the end of July.

“If things hold up through August and September, we could end up with an early harvest of some very high yielding, top quality crops that beat the UK’s 42t/ha average set over the past 5 years,” he says.

So, his advice to growers is; start to plan ahead for earlier harvesting and at the same time ensure that you have the clamp capacity to cope.

“Mr Burgess points out that in the period from drilling to tasseling most crops were hardly stressed. “Crops went in to decent seedbeds, there’s been little purpling of leaves and no limiting factors for good growth.

“The earliest tasseling crops were seen on July 10th and most others had reached this stage by July 20th – that’s around 5 days earlier than normal. Silking and pollination occurred 4-5 days later than this and with crops under no stress, pollination should have been good and we can expect few problems with blind grain sites on cobs.

“Faced with little stress, most crops also have just one cob and the only challenge going forward will be for a well developed stover to lay down starch into the grains and ripen,” says Mr Burgess.

KWS’ heat unit monitoring service – on-line at - suggests that even those in more northern regions have had up to 30-35% more heat than the ten year average for their location.

On July 31st, Chester was 28% ahead of normal, while Shrewsbury and Norwich had had 37 and 39% more heat units than the ten year norm.

The other plus point from the season is that so far it has been too dry for eyespot, so growers with maize in close rotation should expect good green leaf retention.

Mr Burgess points out that in the last record year of 2003, temperatures often got to 30 degrees C, but so far we have seen fewer extremes and more around 22-26 degrees C. “So far it has been an exceptional growing season, even better than last year.”

With more very early (FAO 170-180 and ultra-early ((FAO 150-160) hybrids in the ground than there was back then in the early 2000s, crops will be at least 5-7 days earlier to mature than they were then, and that’s without the excellent summer. Both will also help with various cross compliance issues and ensure following crops are in, in good time.

Looking ahead, KWS says that while the trend towards earlier maturing material will continue, it is important that yield is not compromised.

According to KWS sales manager, John Morgan, the key is better consistency as a result of better breeding and vigour. Growers now demand fast establishment and a good mature cob on a plant that is still alive at harvest and that is what our breeders are delivering.”

For 2015 KWS will be introducing Augustus – an FAO 160 ultra-early variety in the same bracket as Kaspian – which is the number one variety for DM yield in this category. “Augustus carries around 10% more yield, without the weaker eyespot resistance or snouting we have seen in the past,” says Mr Morgan.

“It is important that forage maize growers have a mix to choose from and varieties such as Aurelius (FAO 180) with exceptional DM and Severus (FAO 170) will provide higher yields and yet still give good maturity.”

In the biogas sector, Mr Morgan says that growers are looking at later material and a spread of harvest and 2014 looks set to provide them with a large bulk of valuable DM to fill their clamps. With specialist biogas maize Fabregas leading the way, look out for Colisee (FAO 220) and the later-maturing Carolinio (FAO 260) in 2015 as potential partner varieties for bulk.

“While the total maize acreage is around 5-8% down this year, due to a larger cereal area drilled the previous autumn, plus the loss of a seed treatment to control wireworm, we’d expect greater confidence in the crop, supported by these new introductions to help reverse this trend next year,” says John Morgan.