The clean and neatly parked fleet of John Deere forage harvesters, tractors, and large haulage trailers on East End Farm make for an impressive sight. Around mid-March, the collective roar of the powerful, green-and-yellow diesel machines reverberates across this farm in the Mooi River area of the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) Midlands as they all head out to start their demanding task of bringing in local dairy farmers’ silage maize crops. Not until as much as 2 000ha of silage maize crops, equating to approximately 130 000t of wet maize silage, have been harvested and safely ensiled in bunkers will the drivers of the fleet be able to enjoy a well-deserved rest.
Overseeing this hive of activity are Craig Johnston and his wife Kim, owners of Johnston Contracting, which provides silage harvesting and haymaking services to a number of dairy and other livestock farmers in the KZN Midlands. At the time of writing, the Johnstons were preparing preliminary schedules for the farms where they will harvest silage. The schedules become more accurate and fixed the closer the time gets to the tight harvesting window of late February to mid-May.
“As recently as five or so years ago, the local effects of climate change were not as big a problem as they are now,” says Johnston. “At that time, weather patterns were still fairly predictable, and our silage maize-growing clients would all plant their crops from late October to early November with the aim of having these crops ready by mid-March for harvesting. “Nowadays, our clients are having to wait longer for the warmer soil temperatures and consistent rainfall they need to start planting, and even these factors vary across the KZN Midlands.”
Johnston explains that local dairy farmers want their silage maize crops harvested when the plants are at optimal maturity, moisture content, and nutritional value, and then quickly and properly ensiled in on-farm bunkers. This allows the silage an optimal period to ferment under anaerobic conditions before winter when the farmers start feeding it to their animals. As soon as their silage maize crops are harvested, farmers immediately use the opportunity to plant green feed crops, such as oats and stooling rye, in the same lands as added grazing for the cows during winter.
READY TO HARVEST
Johnston himself plants a total of 370ha of yellow maize on East End Farm and on other farms he leases. Some of this is harvested as silage, while the balance is harvested as grain. Both are sold directly to local livestock farmers and other buyers. Johnston’s choice of yellow maize hybrids is guided by seed agent Kevin Gotte.
Gotte explains that most Midlands dairy farmers plant short-season yellow maize hybrids that are ready for harvesting 120 to 130 days from planting, if all goes well.
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