Maize champion

Precision agriculture and direct drilling are among the tools award-winning maize grower Chris Pellow uses in his Waikato one-man operation. By Glenys Christian.

In Crops and Forage13 Minutes

Precision agriculture and direct drilling are among the tools award-winning maize grower Chris Pellow uses in his Waikato one-man operation. By Glenys Christian.

Northern Waikato maize grower, Chris Pellow, describes himself as being “out on a bit of a limb”.

“I’m not getting the record-breaking yields of other growers, but I’m not cropping highly fertile Waikato soils,” he says.

He’s also up to 100 metres higher in altitude on his home farm at Onwhero, but it’s his attention to detail and careful planning that recently saw him take out the title of Maize Grower of the Year at the Federated Farmers annual arable awards this year.

He’s the fourth generation of his family to farm at Onewhero, above the Waikato River, following on from his great-grandfather settling there in 1900 on almost 90ha. Bush was cleared, livestock run and over the years half of the land was sold to a brother and another area to a cousin. A 2ha bush remnant remains.

Chris’s father switched from milking dairy cows to rearing calves and ran sheep on a neighbouring property when he found the workload too great.

Chris set off in yet another direction when he signed up for a three-year horticultural cadetship which saw him work for specialised vegetable growers at nearby Bombay. This led him to start growing his own vegetables on part of the 34ha home farm in 1989.

“I was more interested in plants than livestock and I enjoy working with machinery,” he says.

“I started off growing greens for four or five years, then sweetcorn which went into pouches to be sent to Japan.”

A small initial area expanded to 20ha with about 4ha of pumpkins for the local market grown to provide winter income. But the strength of New Zealand dollar started to work against export returns and labour issues became a problem.

“I was relying on part-time seasonal workers which was difficult because I was out of town and off the beaten track.”

Next came maize.

“The industry was growing rapidly at the time and I was interested in what was happening in the United States,” he says.

“I read widely because the internet was just getting going. There were a lot of things which fed into it.”

In 2000 he decided just to grow maize.

“That got rid of staff hassles and I could just simplify things.”

He started off growing maize for grain, using the same machinery as he had for sweetcorn, then found demand for maize silage from local farmers in the traditionally dairying area. Now 28ha of the home farm is used for cropping. He then expanded his operation to a 14ha leased block of land at Churchill 25km away. And in 2013 he bought 107ha at Mercer, again by the Waikato River, where 66ha is cropped. There are 7ha in pine trees and the rest is leased to a sheep and beef farmer for grazing. Chris now crops a total of 122ha, running it as a one-man operation.

“There’s not a lot of spare time,” he says.

“It’s a big juggling exercise.”

No time of year is this more the case when he is trying to sow crops and avoid spring and early summer rainfall which ranges from 1200mm on the river flats to 1450mm at Onwhero, 120m above sea level.

“The Mercer block has been well developed with more pumps and drains put in so I can control the water,” he says.

“But at Churchill the land is prone to the variability of the river height. In October there wasn’t one dry paddock and when I was soil testing I had to pick the spots to test.”

There are also “vastly different soil types” to deal with, from clay to clay loam on the higher land to sand, silt “and whatever the river’s brought down” on the two other blocks. The pH levels range from 5.4 up to a high of 6.5 on the home farm where there’s been a longer history of lime application. With Olsen P levels he’s aiming to bring these up to 20-30 on the Churchill block, which has the lowest.

“That’s not high but it’s adequate.”

Chris is rigorous about soil sampling one third of each farm on a grid pattern every year, after starting on the home farm about 15 years ago to provide a fertility snapshot.

“I’ve been interested in and have been using precision agriculture for some years,” he says.

All his fertiliser inputs are applied at variable rates, meaning he can’t use standard fertiliser mixes and the time taken is increased because of multiple applications needed. He modified his existing machinery to carry out such applications – “but now you can go and order it”.

“You’re targeting nutrients to the area of the field that needs it, but you might use the same quantity,” he says.

“I’m trying to be smarter about where nutrient are applied, especially in today’s nutrient environment.”

There’s also the considerable cost saving in diesel.

“You can always tweak things and move to finer grid sampling to improve accuracy, but that would push costs up. I’m trying to find a happy medium.”

Harvesting contractors use yield mapping

The only contractors he uses, for harvesting, use yield mapping technology which feeds into his fertiliser application decisions for the next crop. He’s also used deep N testing, sampling at a depth of 600mm for more than 10 years. This, as well as the use of winter cover crops, has seen a 200-300kg/ha reduction in N applied over this time.

While he used to grow grass in winter to be grazed off by stock he could see the damage that was resulting with pugging and soil compaction. So now he’s settled on a legume mix after experimenting for the last 13 years with blends including faba beans, lupins, brassicas including mustard and tillage radish, phacelia, buckwheat and clover.

“They’re recycling nutrients and producing nitrogen for me for the next grain crop.”

He direct drills the cover crops after the maize is harvested and they’re left to grow without added fertiliser until spring. More recently he’s experimented with different clovers as a living cover crop.

“It’s very much a work in progress but I’ve had some good results with a couple of whole-field trials rather than just a few strips. It’s information overload at some times.”

Chris was also drawn to the work carried out by LandWISE in Hawke’s Bay as a way to minimise wastage, starting with low-hanging fruit. This led him to look at strip-till and then no-till cultivation in 2000, choosing the latter from 2005 after the first of two visits to the US corn belt.

“It’s very much a mindset change to move down that path but I really saw the benefit of it,” he says.

“Strip-till was to be my fallback position when I moved to no-till had it not worked, but I haven’t had to take that backwards step.”

He admits it’s been a challenge but says he’s always been interested in machinery.

“I had to modify a lot of my machinery to make it fit for purpose. You end up with a lot of very specialised machinery but you’ve got to look at the long term.”

He’s able to carry out a lot of his own repairs and maintenance.

“I only call in a specialist when a computer needs to be plugged in.”

He had plenty of naysayers at the beginning.

“I didn’t hide what I was doing but there were people who said it wouldn’t work and I’d be pulling my plough out in a few years’ time.”

He’s now pleased that a couple who’ve seen the results on his farm have followed him and made the switch.

“I don’t miss the compaction and it’s made a huge change to how the soils have responded.”

There have been improvements in soil structure, health and organic matter as well as carbon storage – “but we’re not allowed to benefit from that”.

He’s part of a group of 15 maize growers who are all using reduced tillage with their crops. They’re spread from Dargaville through the Waikato and into the Bay of Plenty and meet up four times a year.

“We’ve known each other a long time and because we’re doing similar things we like to bounce ideas off each other,” he says.

They share all their data and are now extending that to financial benchmarking, based on the dairy industry discussion group model.

For the future and looming further environmental constraints from local and national governments, Chris says he doesn’t believe he can reduce N use much more without reducing yields. No-till cultivation does have a big advantage of being able to plant within one metre of a water course rather than the 5m setback required for traditional cultivation.

“So I can crop the full area especially at Mercer. But it would be nice to see some financial reward for those who have been the early adopters.”