The Importance of Game Cover Crops

from Seed Specialist, Mel Digger

Increasingly farms and estates are managing their shoots and environmental conservation together and a successfully managed shoot can be both profitable and rewarding, as well as positively contributing to the countryside and overall environmental management. Here are our top tips for planning your game cover crops to create safe and nutritious environments for game birds and other wildlife, alike.

Game Feeds

Plan ahead

  • Game cover crops will only reach their full potential- and do their job on a shoot- if they are managed well from the star. Careful planning is required, up front, around which crops are required to meet not just the cover needs, but also as a source of nutrition for the birds.

Learn from last season

  • Planning in crop rotation, particularly thinking about where weeds or diseases have been a problem before is crucial and also helps to reduce soil borne diseases.

Sowing the seed

  • A rapidly growing crop has more chance of resisting pest attack so a well prepared seed bed will support crop health and development.
  • Drilling of crops can be a better option as it ensures adequate seed depth and row width as well as providing maximum seed to soil contact which supports establishment. Correct sow width also improves bird holding and driving capability. Checking crops regularly after sowing is vital to ensure that there are no pest attacks especially from crows, pigeons, slugs etc.

Crop selection

  • Game maize is one of the most popular game cover crops for providing cover as well as a valuable feed source. Game maize needs enough heat units (sunlight) to reach full maturity to then provide cover and feed during the entire shooting season. The height of the crop may vary due to seasonal and management variations but the later the sowing date the later the maturity of the crop. Some varieties produce immature cobs that only develop to the ‘bright white’ stage which are less interesting to rats and badgers! A downside of this is that it also offers less feed value. We also recommend dressing your game cover maize with a bird repellent to support the initial growth.
  • Sorghum is a semi tropical non-cob producing plant which provides cover throughout the season. It tends to prefers warmer temperatures and can be slow to establish so it’s less suitable for Northern England or Scotland. Depending on the height of crop it can act as a windbreak around other game crops and makes an excellent driving cover. Sorghum is often sown as a companion to maize with the bulkier Sorghum offering good protection to birds.
  • Brassica crops, and in particular Kale, provide cover for the whole season. Care needs to be taken with the continual use of growing Kale on the same ground due to Brassica sickness – “Club Root”.
  • Millet provides a valuable feed source for birds as well as warmth and shelter. It’s more suited to Southern regions due to it not being frost tolerant and also performs well when sown with maize.
  • Sunflowers provide a nutritious seed with high oil content. Mostly grown in conjunction with other crops in mixes or in adjacent blocks. And the seed from sunflowers can be utilised from October.

Other cover crops include triticale, quinoa, phacelia, mustard and canary grass- it’s worth noting that some will offer just a cover or feed option but others offer the benefit of both.

A large proportion of cover crops are sown as mixes to combine the benefit of different species and can extend the utilisation period, help attract and hold specific birds and provide feed and cover where both are required. Mixes can be just two or three species or a number of different species. Standard options are available but customer own specification mixes can be mixed to order.

And sometimes birds need even more reason to stay!

The shelter, warmth and nutrition offered by a sound game cover crop plan are far reaching, but sometimes birds can still decide the grass is greener… and start to wander. The season we’ve just finished has been one of those seasons with Gamekeepers reporting from the north, south, east and west of straying birds.

One way to combat this for next season is to supplementary feed using one of the Hold’em straights or mixes which contain aniseed as an added attraction for game birds. Creating the ideal habitat and feeding correctly will ensure healthy birds and guarantee better returns year on year.