MAIZE Extend the planting window: dryland maize shows potential by Bernie Reppel

Emma and Tom Coggan inspect their parents' maize crop

THE SEED is more expensive, but you can plant it earlier in spring than sorghum. It enjoys a $20/ tonne premium over sorghum but costs more to plant. It's a better bet than sorghum in the good seasons but worse in the bad ones

That's maize, which just about everyone in the industry calls corn. And drought-stricken graziers have discovered that its large kernels can be fed out on bare ground, opening up another market option.

Growers in the more marginal areas of the northern grains region are showing renewed interest in dryland maize.

Farmer experience

John Coggan and his son Phillip, from Meandarra, on Queensland's western downs, like the option for maize to be sown into cooler soil than sorghum, widening the planting window. Their first maize crop, in the 2001-02 summer season, was 200 ha, which returned similar gross margins to sorghum planted under the same conditions.

They followed up with 80 ha in 2002-03, reducing the area because they weren't sure of maize's ability to perform as well in what looked like being an extra-dry summer cropping season.

They harvested 1.65 t/ha from the maize, 2.3 t/ha from sorghum, but the maize brought $400 a tonne on-farm, $110 a tonne more than their sorghum, "a very unusual (and welcome) price spread", according to Phillip Coggan.

James Clark, across the border, between North Star and Croppa Creek in NSW, didn't take his 2002-03 maize crop through to grain harvest, opting to sell it as greenchop to a next-door feedlot. It was his third maize crop.

Cotton country maize alternative

Last year Mr Clark weighed up prospective prices for cotton and the value of October-November rain before planting 160 ha of cotton country to maize. The maize went 4.375 t/ha and brought offers of $20/tonne above the price for sorghum.

In the event, Mr Clark says he "quit the sorghum, stored the maize and did better than that".

Both growers are clients of Goondiwindi consultant Michael Castor and Associates, which started including maize in the rotations of some of its clients about four years ago, with generally satisfactory results.

Agronomist Paul Castor said the company suggested maize to six or eight clients with the most reliable acreage. Their plantings averaged around 120 ha.

"This was definitely our worst year. There were problems with pollination because of the dry weather and some cobs were only partly pollinated. That was something we had not seen before," Mr Castor said.

"Some of the first-time growers found the results disappointing but those with more experience reckon that, while this year was poorer, they were happy with how their maize went in previous years.

"Our main interest in maize is mostly as a way of extending the planting window, which is its greatest asset for us. But you always need to be mindful that maize is not as stress-tolerant as sorghum.

"It's still a fledgling industry out here, but apparently there was quite a bit of dryland corn around in the 1980s. It had a bit of a run then, and failed a bit, but interest has been rekindled with the advent of skip-row planting, which may improve its reliability in this area, and new varieties which appear to be more tolerant of stress."

Research into marginal country maize

CSIRO crop agronomist Mike Robertson leads a GRDC-supported project researching low-risk production strategies to improve grower confidence in maize as a dryland crop in marginal areas of the northern region. The University of Queensland, the seed company Pioneer Hi-Bred, and Queensland's Department of Primary Industries (QDPI) are involved in the research, with on-farm input from collaborating growers.

Early results from the project suggest maize, with its premium price, can out-return sorghum in the best seasons, with results reversed in the worst ones.

QDPI agronomist Richard Routley says agronomy and management can minimise the risk in growing maize in marginal environments and there's significant potential to extend dryland production in areas previously considered too risky.

That would improve the supply of sought-after feed grain and provide an additional rotation option in sustainable farming systems.

Program 2 Contact: Mr Phillip Coggan 07 4663 0798 Mr James Clark 02 6754 5212 Mr Paul Castor 07 4671 2045 Mr Richard Routley 07 4671 1388

Region North