In October the maize crop is ready to harvest. Maize is grown in Cornwall to make maize silage, a valuable winter feed for dairy cows.
The type grown for cattle feed is just one of many different varieties of maize that also gives us corn on the cob or sweetcorn, cornflakes, corn oil, popcorn and maize flour.
Maize is a very good source of starch and is one of the most important cereal crops in the world. Archaeologists have shown that maize was grown in Mexico 7,000 years ago and it is still a vitally important crop in that country today.
Maize for cattle feed is planted in the late spring. By autumn it has grown to a height of about 2.4 metres. You have probably seen fields of closely planted rows of these tall green plants.
The maize plants have solid stems and many strap-like leaves. The corn cobs containing the grain grow hidden from view, wrapped up in leaves. You can spot them by their silky top knot. Each plant produces one or two cobs which weigh about 200gms.
By autumn the cobs are ripe but not dry enough for the grain to be harvested from them. So the whole plant – stem, leaves and cobs – is cut and chopped to make silage. This is done with a forage harvester, the same machine that made grass silage earlier in the year but now fitted with a different cutting head.
The chopped maize is loaded on to trailers and carted in to a concrete pit near the farmyard where it is stacked, compressed and sheeted over with plastic.
After a week to ten days it is ready to feed to the cows. The high starch content of the maize silage is just what dairy cows need to produce milk during the winter.
Livestock farming on Bodmin Moor follows a pattern that has been established over a thousand years. Many of the local farms have the right to graze animals on the open moorland.
The moor provides summer grazing for sheep, cattle and ponies. The number of animals grazing on the moor is carefully controlled, to balance the growth of the grass and prevent damage to the grassland.
Ponies on the moor
The ponies that graze on the moor are owned by local farmers. Once they rode the ponies out on the moor to check on their cattle and sheep. Now they are more likely to use a Landrover or a quad bike.
The foals are born in the spring and by the autumn are ready to be weaned off their mothers. In October the ‘drift’, or round-up of the ponies, takes place. The foals are separated from their mothers who return to the moor for the winter.
Cows and sheep that graze the moorland in the summer are brought in to the fields near the farm in the autumn. Calves and lambs are weaned and sold on for rearing.
Autumn is the time to prepare for housing the cattle through the winter. As daily temperatures drop, grass growth slows down and the feed value of the grass falls. By November dairy cows will probably be kept in the barns.
Beef cattle may stay out in the fields longer and be fed silage or hay.
Cornwall’s generally mild winters means beef cattle could stay outside all the year round. But when the high winter rainfall softens the ground, the animals’ feet will begin to cut up the fields. This is called ‘poaching’.
If it gets too bad, the grass plants are destroyed and the field is turned to mud, reducing the value of the grazing for the following season.
Weaning beef calves
Beef calves born in the spring are now ready to be weaned and then they will be housed.
They have grown big and strong on the milk from their mothers and the summer grass.
Weaning means separating the calves from their mothers. By now the cow will be producing less milk and the calves are big enough to fend for themselves. Keeping them housed and well fed ensures they continue to grow.
When the calves are weaned the cows are ‘dried off’; that means they stop producing milk for a while. They will calve again in the following spring.
The calves may be sold or kept to be reared for beef or breeding. Special sales of these beef calves are held at Hallworthy and Truro livestock markets in October and November.
Cattle reared for beef are fed on a diet that allows them to grow and put on flesh. They are sold for meat when they have maximised their growth but before they put on too much fat.