Forming an arrangement with a tillage farmer to grow forage can sound daunting, but in reality can be very simple, with advantages for both parties.

John Gleeson and John Kelleher from Co Cork are a perfect example of the tillage and livestock sectors working together.

A locked-up herd, and extra livestock numbers as a result, forced Kelleher to look for extra forage in the spring of 2018 and having identified a feed deficit he approached Gleeson, a tillage farmer, to grow 45ac of maize.

Weeks later, a drought hit the country and Gleeson had acquired another four customers for maize.

At that time, he was heading into May with 350ac of spring barley to plant in dry conditions.

He says “it wouldn’t be hard to do the sums” on that crop (average spring barley yields finished at 2.3t/ac in 2018) and was glad to see customers come along for maize. Since that time, he has been growing the crop for five farmers.

Gleeson ploughs, tills, spreads the fertiliser and sprays when needed, while he gets local contractor Shane McCarthy to plant the crop. McCarthy also harvests the crop destined for Kelleher’s farm, while the remaining farmers organise harvesting and transport of the crop themselves.

Farming outside Midleton, Gleeson has ideal ground for maize. It’s free-draining and sits at about 280ft. Maize fits well into the farm’s rotation where there is also fodder beet, spring and winter barley and winter wheat. Maize has added to the farm’s profit and spreads the risk and workload.

“You always seem to get that extra bit of yield after the maize,” he says, adding that break crops are an essential part of his tillage farm.

Planting maize gives Gleeson a chance to add organic manures to his rotation and improve soil health.

“We’ve seen the results of it in the last year or two. In other crops, yields have really increased and maize has let me do that,” he adds.

Increasing cow numbers and reducing workload

Since 2018, the Kellehers have added 135 cows to the herd and buying maize has freed up grass for grazing and grass silage on the farm.

The cows instantly took to the maize, which is mixed with grass silage in the diet. Half of a kilo of soya bean meal is added to the diet to make up for the protein deficit.

Kelleher says that his herd of pedigree Holstein Friesian cows peaked at 30 litres in the spring and milk solids increased and are over 550kg/cow on the farm.

This is ideal ground for maize. We get super crops out of it. I thought this year was exceptional

Heifers and cull cows are also receiving maize on the farm and the cull cows are producing 14 to 15 litres of milk with high solids.

In the past, Kelleher tried many alternative crops but there was often a lot of work involved in processing this feed, such as crimped wheat. Maize silage has taken a lot of work out of his hands. It is also consistent compared with buying grass silage which can be expensive and vary hugely in quality.

He says that if you can’t rent land beside you, maize is the next best thing because it’s dropped into the yard at the end of the season.

Key to success is trust

One thing that is evident is that trust is extremely important. In this scenario, the two farmers knew each other beforehand and the four other farmers Gleeson works with were recommended to him and he has a good relationship with them.

Kelleher is happy to have a confident farmer growing the crop and notes that this year he didn’t see the crop until the first trailer landed in the yard.

“This is ideal ground for maize. We get super crops out of it. I thought this year was exceptional.”

Last season, the maize came in at an average yield of over 24t/ac, while the top yields hit 27t/ac.

Both parties were agreed that paying on a per-acre basis works well and cautioned that where contracts are written on paper and quality factors come into the payment system, things get very complicated.

“I think if it was a bad year it’s no fault of John’s [Gleeson]. You’d have to accept it,” Kelleher says.

The two Corkmen were in agreement that growing maize on spec is out.

Maize is an expensive crop to grow and if there is any doubt with a farmer on the financial side then the crop cannot be planted.

Gleeson works closely with his Dairygold adviser who provided estimated costs of growing the crop.

On payment, Gleeson says: “I work it out that I have a margin. I don’t want to rob the bank, as long as I have a manageable margin, a decent profit and John Kelleher is getting something that he’s happy with that’s all I want at the end of the day.”

He says that the benefit to his following crops and the freedom it gives him to add organic manures to his farm all adds to the farm’s overall profitability.

Tillage and livestock farmers working together

In good humour, Kelleher says: “I can’t afford to fall out with him” and notes that with the increasing regulations and targets to reduce nitrogen rates on farms there is an opportunity for dairy and tillage farmers to work together.

Competition for land in the area is strong and nitrates regulations are putting more pressure on the land base.

Kelleher explains that there are opportunities to export slurry to tillage farms and this can solve problems for both sides.

As stated above, Gleeson is an advocate for applying organic manures to his land and where he can apply to land for maize and beet it suits his farming system better.

In this particular arrangement, the two farms are approximately 10 miles apart and while this is practical for drawing maize, it is not as simple for slurry transport, but both are open to working with farmers in the sharing of organic manures and see it as part of farming’s future.

Advantages and disadvantages for the tillage farmer

  • Break crop added to the rotation.
  • Yield benefit to following crops.
  • Allows more organic manures to be applied and increase organic matter and soil health.
  • Substantial income from the crop.
  • Spreads risk and workload.
  • Expensive crop so need to be guaranteed payment.
  • Harvesting can often occur in difficult conditions.
  • Suitable site needed for good yields and for traffic in difficult weather.
  • Advantages and disadvantages to the dairy farmer

  • Frees up land which would otherwise be dedicated to silage production.
  • Reduces workload.
  • High-energy forage benefiting milk yield and solids.
  • Can provide an outlet for slurry.
  • More consistent than buying grass silage.
  • Protein supplementation needed.
  • Ensiling and pit cover needs to be managed correctly.
  • In brief

  • Trust is key to the success of the arrangement with regard to crop management and payment.
  • Selling on a per-acre basis works where both parties know each other well, are working together on an annual basis and where maize is being planted on a suitable site.
  • Maize adds a break crop to the tillage rotation and provides an outlet for more organic manures.
  • As maize is low in protein, supplementation is needed.
  • Maize is an expensive feed, but an extremely good one. Farmers need to weigh up the costs and benefits in their own system. Kelleher points out that when land isn’t available nearby it suits his system and reduces his workload.