12th September 2022

Going under cover

Choice of cover crops for the 2017/18 season is now on the radar for gamekeepers and those looking for good crops to provide shelter and feed for birds. “It’s good to reflect on the past season and see where there’s some scope for fine-tuning ahead of sowing from April onwards,” says Martin Titley from Limagrain, UK; suppliers of the specialist HiBird gamecover and conservation seed mixtures.

Good establishment, a plentiful feed source and cover from September until the end of January are the prerequisites of a good game cover crop. “But there’s a bit more to it when it comes to selecting just the right crop – and the most suitable variety,” he adds.

“There’s plenty of choice. Consider the site and how exposed it is, the soil type and threat of pests and disease. At the same time, the design and layout of the shoot will influence the structure of the cover crop.”

He also stresses the importance of looking at varieties within a crop, as this is often where significant rewards can be gained with a gamecover. “Take the most popular game cover crop, maize – you can have a blend which contains early, intermediate and late varieties so you can look for a good cover right through the season. Or if vermin are a problem, a late maturing variety will reduce their feed source.”

Likewise, he encourages growers to look at the height of the crop. “Some maize varieties reach 200 to 220cm but there are varieties that grow to 150cm to 170cm tall and this might be better for driving birds through in some cases.”

He also suggests looking at sorghums. “The dwarf types like Shorty are good options grown with maize to provide flushing points, whereas intermediate (height) types like DP2 can provide a windbreak for a maize crop and provide additional warmth.

East-Anglian based Simon Hobbs from Agrii agrees. “Conditions in 2016/17 have been kind to cover crops,” he says. “There’s been plenty of feed from the maize throughout the season and sorghum crops were looking good right until the end of January.”

Looking to the next season, he advises gamekeepers and farmers to think carefully about the position of the crop and the choice of crops. Some offer better shelter, some are denser so provide extra warmth at ground level and some are superior in terms of food provision. You often need a mixture.

“A plentiful food supply though is a priority for most growers,” he says. “You need to encourage the birds in, and make sure they are well fed – and this is where maize scores well.

“And if it’s grown adjacent to a shorter, denser cover crop with a good canopy like sorghum or millet, the birds have shelter and a warm environment too. Sorghum will hold its leaf right through the season.

“It’s a case of looking at the whole picture and growing the right combination of crops for the birds and then for the drive.”

Cover crops of maize and sorghum have been very successful on shoots this season. In Eastern Counties, where conditions haven’t been too severe, there was still a lot of feed on maize cobs at the end of January. “I’ve seen quite a few cases where it’s been possible to mow down strips of maize across the season that has then created a launch pad for the birds but it has also brought the cobs down to ground level for the birds to feed off,” he adds.

Soil type, difficult sites and establishment problems will also influence the choice of crop. If vermin such as rats are a problem, an intermediate height sorghum or late maize maybe a solution, and the intermediate sorghum is ideal if deer are liable to damage a maize crop.

Weed and pest control should be considered too. “Maize is a popular gamecover crop, but I would always recommend an insecticide and fungicide treated seed to protect it from the main pests and diseases. And use a blend of different maturing varieties or a few mixtures so there’s a range in height and maturities. HiBird Maize Blend, Compact and Late tick all the boxes here and have been really successful this year.”

Looking ahead, maize, sorghum, kale hybrids, millets and sunflowers will remain popular. Mr Titley also suggests looking at the tailor-made conservation mixtures too that include crops like quinoa, kale, linseed, radish and mustard. 
These have been developed primarily for shoots, with plentiful feed supplies and cover as a priority but with added benefits to suit certain areas and sites and to counter pest and disease threats. And, as a bonus, many of these are options are eligible for the new Countryside Stewardship Scheme.”

More details on growing cover crops and the choice of crops are available from Simon Hobbs, Agrii, 07770 643365  or simon.hobbs@agrii.co.uk or from the HiBird catalogue 2017 that can be downloaded from the website.

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