Game crops

  • The first sign of flea beetle presence are tiny pin-prick holes on the kale leaf. At this point you should act quickly to spray the crop with a recommended insecticide. Failure to do so will inevitably result in a lost crop. A number of seed merchants are now using ‘Combicoat’ or other seed dressing as an early protection of young kale plants during their most vulnerable stages of growth.

    Kale seed treated against flea beetle cannot be broadcast onto the soil and then incorporated. It must be drilled and thus fully and immediately covered to prevent any toxic effects on wildlife which might pick it up from the soil surface.

    Another possible approach is to cover the Kale plot, with fleece, immediately after sowing. This also protects against a range of other pests. If carefully stored, fleece can be re-used for several years.

  • First of all you need to understand why the kale has failed. If the ground has become 'kale sick' then it would be folly to replace the failed kale with most other brassicas. A useful alternative in this case is fodder radish, a fast growing brassica that tolerates a wide range of soil types and pH, and which is not susceptible to the usual causes of brassica sickness.

    Other reasons for kale failure can include pest damage (slugs, flea beetle, pigeons), poor quality seed, poor ground preparations, insufficient fertiliser, weed competition, and drought.

    Useful, quick-growing catch crops that can be sown between June and August include white mustard, Texsel Greens, Tyfon, forage rape, stubble turnips, fodder radish and Jonty.

  • Maize can be successfully grown in Scotland but only in areas benefiting from the Gulf Stream, or where friendly microclimates may prevail. Generally speaking, these areas germinate the maize seed under plastic.

    Hardy alternatives that provide supplementary feed to game and a beneficial over winter food source for songbirds include triticale, linseed, quinoa and spring tic beans. Our trials in Scotland concluded that Taurus is the most robust variety of triticale for game.

  • The key point to remember is that nearly all types of triticale available in the UK are ‘winter’ varieties and require to be exposed to periods of cold temperatures to vernalise the seed before growing to produce a viable seed head.

    For agricultural purposes, triticale is generally sown in the autumn but as a spring sown game crop it must be established as soon as ground conditions permit during March through to mid-April. The wet weather during spring 2002 forced many shoots to delay triticale establishment until well into May, resulting in a disappointing to non-existent final crop. We are currently trialling a spring variety of triticale from France.

  • First of all, test the soil for pH, and levels of nitrogen, phosphate and potash. Acidic and poorly fertilised soils are more likely to suffer from clubroot. If the pH is below 6.0, an application of lime would be advisable. Further tests after every four years or so are advisable. Good seedbed preparation is essential, with a fine, firm seedbed being the ideal.

    Ensure weather and soil conditions are right before drilling each variety of seed, for example, whilst triticale can be drilled in early April, it is too early for kale, sorghum or maize. Poor thin soils should benefit from spreadings of farmyard manure to boost organic matter levels.

    Understand the likely weed burden in the soil and apply appropriate pre- or post-emergence herbicides. Remember to check on possible restrictions imposed by SEERAD or Defra on pesticide use on set-aside or Stewardship crops.

    Inspect crops regularly for signs of pest attack and take immediate action whether it be spraying for flea beetle or employing bird scarers.  Once the crop is established, give it a further boost of nitrogen. The one exception to this is triticale where nitrogen application should be kept to a minimum. Too much will likely result in the crop lodging.

    We recommend that crop sites are rotated to reduce the likelihood of clubroot. Purchase good quality seed from a reputable supplier to ensure good germination and vigorous growth.

  • Successful seed mixtures are usually the simplest ones. Numerous seed types in a mixture can create drilling and establishment problems because of disparity in seed size and differing sowing depths. Carefully planned Wild Bird Cover can provide a tailor-made partridge habitat offering an insect-rich brood rearing environment under a safe canopy, good winter cover and in some cases, useful nesting cover.

    A brood-rearing mix can either be established in the autumn or spring. The latter is usually kale based, providing good over winter cover and supplementary feed in year one before re-seeding to form useful brood rearing habitat in the spring following establishment. A good spring sown mix might consist of kale, a small quantity of mustard to act as a nurse, sweet blossom clover and a food crop such as linseed, millet, quinoa or a cereal. Where kale proves difficult to establish, spring sown triticale and linseed, would offer good brood rearing in year one.

    An autumn sown mixture should provide good cover for foraging broods the following year. Our trials have shown that a triticale based mixture is ideal, one which includes a small quantity of winter oil seed rape and winter vetch. This mixture has proved its worth.

  • The ‘appetite’ for new crop ideas has always been keen. Some crops have proved to be successful ‘white rabbits’ such as quinoa and millet in the 1980s and triticale and some sorghums in the 1990s. Others however do not go through an adequate trialling process before marketing. At Fordingbridge we conduct game crop trials and on our courses demonstrate the pros and cons of a complete range of game food and cover crops.

    Over the years we have found the tried and tested ‘old favourites’ to be the most reliable and effective. New strains of these crops, for example Coleor kale or Taurus triticale, are therefore of particular interest to our staff when advising shoots.

    Each year we run a series of one day and residential management courses during which game crop choice, establishment and management are often key components to the programme.

  • The size of a game crop depends on many variables: density of game birds, costs and availability of land are just three. The shape is also important. Generally speaking, the width of a game crop should be governed by two factors: shelter from the wind inside the crop and the width of the beating line, allowing for a 5-metre gap between beaters in most crops. In addition, remember that a Wild Bird Cover crop on set-aside land must have a minimum width of 20 metres (unless part of a whole field of set-aside) and a minimum area of 0.3ha.

    This minimum width can be reduced to 10 metres if it is adjacent to a water course. Length can be determined by the density of game birds, where they need to be flushed from and availability of land, costs etc. Getting the shape, size and siting right makes the world of difference to success, so an on-site visit from you local GWCT advisor is the best way to get these aspects right.

  • Firstly ensure that a fine, firm seedbed is prepared. Cloddy ground will harbour slugs. If growing kale, a small quantity of mustard seed mixed in can provide a valuable nurse crop for the kale, helping protect it from pigeon damage. Where oil seed rape is being grown nearby, flea beetle can prove a problem. Linseed and kale seeds can be purchased with a dressing against beetle but this must be fully incorporated in the soil as it can be toxic to birds. A useful alternative is fleece. Laid on the ground, fleece helps warm the soil faster, retains its moisture, and keeps the flea beetle off as well as other pests.

    Where rabbits area a nuisance, careful crop choice can help. A triticale/linseed mix can succeed in such areas. In its early stages, the growth of triticale is prostrate so rabbits tend to overlook it. Once the air warms up, the crop growth can outpace rabbit damage. Linseed on the other hand does not seem to appeal to the rabbit palate. Sorghums, which are only suitable in the south, also seem unpalatable to grazing animals like rabbits and deer.

    Heavy duty black thread strung criss-cross above the crop can help deter rooks, which otherwise will often dig up the germinating seedlings of larger seeded crops.The odd rook corpse hanging from its claw and the ubiquitous scare-crow or scare-gun are also useful.

Cover Crop Guide


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