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?
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’