A-maize-ing al­ter­na­tives

Tim We­ston pays homage to the well-loved cover crop, maize, while pre­sent­ing a rather per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment in favour of a lit­tle di­ver­si­fi­ca­tion… any­one for kale and quinoa?

Sporting Shooter - - Keepering -

Maize is a fan­tas­tic game cover; there are no two ways about it. Pheas­ants and par­tridges both love it; it gives them free­dom to move around within the crop, birds can see foxes and other ground preda­tors com­ing along the rows, and it also pro­vides cover from over­head rap­tors. Keep­ers like maize, too, as it is rel­a­tively easy to grow, re­quires lit­tle in terms of in­put from the farm, and we know and are used to it. How­ever, should all our eggs go into one bas­ket when it comes to cover crops?

Al­most all shoots grow game cover, from the small­est DIY syn­di­cate to the largest com­mer­cial shoot. The only thing that varies is the size of the plots and the acreage grown. Cover crops can do many things to en­hance our shoot: they can pro­vide op­tions for early sea­son drives when the woods might have too much leaf on the trees to drive the birds from; they can link ar­eas of land where there are no nat­u­ral trans­fer points, such as hedges or ditches; and they can give us more op­tions in terms of ar­eas we can shoot by trans­form­ing, for ex­am­ple, that mas­sive hill field into a haven for game to be flushed from.

If cover crops fail, some shoots can be in real trou­ble. Maize can be finicky and, with our re­cent wet and low light-level sum­mers, it has proven

You can have two or three years of cover from one plant­ing of kale harder to grow in some ar­eas. There are ways that you can pro­tect your­self from this prob­lem and it is by not putting all your eggs in one bas­ket. Now, I am a big fan of maize as a cover crop, but I am also one to hedge my bets, which is why I think it is a good idea for all shoots to look at turn­ing over a per­cent­age of their cover crop to ei­ther bian­nual or peren­nial crops. This is a pro­ject to do slowly; don’t go at it full hog in the first year be­cause, de­pend­ing on what cover you choose, some­times you don’t get much ac­tual cover in year one, es­pe­cially with peren­nial crops.

Bian­nual crops are usu­ally mixes that con­tain var­i­ous plants, such as buck­wheat, trit­i­cale, quinoa and kale, amongst oth­ers! The an­nual plants are there to pro­vide some cover and feed in year one, and to shel­ter the kale from pests like pi­geons and rab­bits. The great thing with crops like th­ese is that, once you get them es­tab­lished, you know you will have two and some­times even three years of cover from the one plant­ing. This is im­por­tant be­cause you will have cover even if some of the other crops fail; you will still have the year-two plants in other ar­eas. It is a good idea to phase your drilling over a three-year ro­ta­tion so that you will al­ways have at least two-thirds of your cover in bian­nu­als. There are two other great rea­sons to use mixes like th­ese. The first is that small birds and mam­mals love them for the food and shel­ter they pro­vide them with over the win­ter, which can in­crease the bio­di­ver­sity on the shoot. The se­cond is that, un­like the an­nual maize crop, they will re­main all through the year once es­tab­lished and of­fer nest­ing sites, ‘hun­gry gap’ feed (Fe­bru­ary – April) and cover from preda­tors. The draw­back with th­ese mixes is that they make it harder to con­trol weeds be­cause of the num­ber of dif­fer­ent plant types, and they can be slightly more costly to es­tab­lish than straight maize. Hav­ing said that, the cost is spread over the life­span of the cover, so it should work out to be more cost ef­fec­tive in the long run. The other main draw­back is that, like maize, if you are in a par­tic­u­larly ‘ratty’ area then grow­ing seed-bear­ing cover can con­trib­ute to rat har­bourage and end up en­cour­ag­ing rats to live and feed in your cover strips. We are now in an era where ro­dent con­trol is be­ing care­fully looked at by govern­ment with re­gards to the use of ro­den­ti­cides; this is some­thing that, as keep­ers, we need to be aware of.

Peren­nial crops are crops that only need to be planted once. Other than wood­land, the best of th­ese at the mo­ment is mis­cant­hus. This is a great crop which is much like maize in terms of size and height, and acts in the same way as maize when driv­ing birds from it. It does have some draw­backs in the fact that it can take up to three years to es­tab­lish and make a de­cent cover. How­ever, once you have it, you have it, and mis­cant­hus will just need top­ping each year to come back as well as ever. The beauty of this is that you know you will al­ways have cover. If you de­cide to grow mis­cant­hus, you will have to make sure that you are putting it in the right place; it is ex­pen­sive to grow ini­tially so you don’t want to be re­mov­ing it to try some­thing dif­fer­ent. De­spite the first one-off cost of es­tab­lish­ing the crop, mis­cant­hus is very suit­able for smaller DIY shoots as well as the larger es­tates, mainly be­cause it is a long-term crop that, af­ter year one, re­quires al­most no in­put costs or in­put from the farm, apart from top­ping once and spray­ing once. This makes it ex­cep­tion­ally eco­nom­i­cal to grow af­ter you have es­tab­lished it. Also, be­cause it is non seed bear­ing you get far fewer prob­lems in terms of pests like rats, rooks and bad­gers; it is def­i­nitely a cover well worth con­sid­er­ing. There are sev­eral types com­mer­cially avail­able as game cover, so you will need to speak to your seed spe­cial­ist for ad­vice on which one is best suited to your sit­u­a­tion.

You don’t need to put all your eggs in one bas­ket; you can still grow maize, but why not mix it up with a strip of peren­nial or bian­nual cover around the maize block, to break up the mono­cul­ture? As you plan for the next sea­son now, why not take a look at some al­ter­na­tives and mix things up a bit? You never know, you might be pleas­antly sur­prised by the re­sults.

‘Mis­cant­hus is very suit­able for smaller

DIY shoots be­cause it is a long-term crop that re­quires al­most no in­put costs’

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