Due to the sector that we all operate in being centuries old, we regularly hear tips and pieces of advice on how to get our cover crops away and how to keep them healthy and strong as they grow. This is often referred to as ‘husbandry’ – ‘the care, cultivation, and breeding of crops and animals’.
With gamekeepers and farm managers getting their covers in now we are well into June, we thought it would be useful for Marc Bull – Bright Seeds game cover advisor – to give a run down on some of the most important aspects of husbandry that he discusses with his customers.
From weed control to nutrition and pest management, below Marc shares some key insights and expertise on how to grow and maintain successful game cover for the season ahead.
From experience, there are three aspects to control weeds that all need to be considered, pre-emergence (pre-em) pesticide, post-emergence (post-em) pesticide and crop walking. Although a stale seed bed – the act of preparing weeks before seed is due to be sown – definitely helps, they aren’t the be all and end all.
After years of working as an advisor, the one thing I have found above all when it comes to weed control is that prevention is better than cure! A small amount of well thought out management each year helps everything to tick along nicely. And this even more important with it becoming increasingly difficult to establish a stale seed bed due to the recent weather conditions.
One of the major questions, as mentioned, is whether to use pre-em or post-em pesticides. There is the train of thought that pre-em should be avoided because if the crop does fail, the active ingredient will cause headaches with the replacement crop – however this isn’t something I totally agree with.
Judging the situation by recent years, I am advising customers to get a pre-em on any crop that they possible can – especially when using mixtures or two maize varieties. It really does seem to be getting more and more difficult with the pesticides available to wait for the plants to be spray safe and get an effective kill rate.
In fact, those of us in the game cover sector can learn a lesson or two from what the forage maize farmers do. They will normally use a pre-em and then tidy up with a post-em afterwards. The golden rule to remember with maize is that it does not like competition! By using a pre-emit wil help the maize crop to get above and away from certain weed species – once the active ingredient has worn off the tidying up can be done with post-em.
Once you begin to look at the weeds that can take effect and the seed retention of said weeds it becomes apparent why weed control is so vital. For example, red shank carries roughly 600 seeds per plant – with a seed life of 60 years. Some Rogue Millet plants – such as Barnyard Grass – carry roughly 40,000 seeds per plant and Foxtail carries 20,000 per plant. A huge number of seeds! The problem here is that seeds are falling in the seed bed for future headaches. And, contrary to misguided beliefs, birds do not eat weed seeds that have dropped off as they are normally trodden in before they get the chance.
The key piece of advice for post-em is that you must wait until the crop is safe to do so. The two-leaf stage on maize or one waxed up leaf on brassicas. A balancing act is needed to hit the weeds as early as possible to ensure effective kill, the bigger the weed, the harder it is to kill – and the easier it will bounce back.
Finally, crop walking! This is essential once the crop begins to come through you want to be having a walk and looking at it at least once a week. Don’t put something in the ground and not look at it for two months – there’s a good chance you’ll be disappointed.
And it’s not just weeds that you need to worry about…
Pests – the bane of many of our lives! Flea Beetle, Slugs, Pigeons, Rabbits, Deer and more!
People have lost crops without even realising they had a crop there. I once visited a customer in Hampshire who complained that 12 hectareshad failed. There were 6-12 pigeons on each acre block. Once we took a closer look there were some leaves remaining – covered in flea beetle. On parting the soil there were rows of stems. Basically, the cover was up and away and then disappeared.
Flea Beetle – Work with your agronomist to come up with an insecticide programme, keeping it legal and within the maximum dosage. It’s always a good idea to mix up your insecticides to give different chemistry. Ensuring there is moisture there, delay drilling until it is warmer.
Pigeons – Kites, bangers and scarecrows.
Slugs – Even in dry years, they have to go somewhere… Down! Be mindful of slugs in the seedbed predating the seed. When the damper nights inevitably come they will come up, and a slug will eat anything and everything. Monitoring and slug pelleting is essential – but remember to consult your agronomist for legal reasons.
Rabbit – Rifle.
Deer – Again, the rifle is a good start. Gutting the deer on the plot can be very effective as they don’t like the scent. Another option is crop selection. If you are in an area with a lot of deer, or badgers, you might come away from a high yielding cobbing maize variety and move to something which is later cobbing such as Foxxi. The cobs stay milky and don’t ripen.
All crops need a basic requirement of Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorous. NPK. The plants macro-nutrients.
The Phosphorous (P) is for the all-important root development. Without root mass you won’t even get the chance to put the Nitrogen (N) in. Once it has the root mass, N can be used to push on with growth. The Potassium (K) helps with yield.
When applying nutrition, most people use a fertiliser that is a blend or compound of NPK, rather than using straight N, P or K. I normally advise customers to apply the fertiliser in two lots. First, a 1/3 on the seed bed prior to drilling, followed by 2/3 as a top dressing. I wouldn’t go above half on the seed bed as if you apply the majority on the seed bed and then have bad weather, you will see that expensive NPK run off and down the drain.
If you used NPK and followed everything as it should be done, one reason for backward crops may be that it has P and K locked up in the soil due to the soils pH level.
If your soil is below pH6, you will need to apply lime as the soils pH is too low, generally it needs to be between pH6-6.5. If below this, then the pH levels can cause nutritional lock up.
If your soils pH is too high – between pH7-8 then you will also get nutritional lock up. However, it is much more difficult to bring pH down. Slurry, chicken manure and a few other things will help bring it down a bit – but not as easily as lime will take it up.
One final piece of advice on nutrition is not to undercook particular crops. If a maize crop is in the warmth, has little competition and has few weeds around it, it will still struggle to get to where you want it without the right level of NPK. The same goes for Kale. I often say Kale should be treated – nutritionally – like an OSR crop as it needs a lot to keep it green. These crops need feeding!
If you follow the steps above on nutrition, pest control and weed pressure then you are well on your way to having a successful game cover crop.
For any queries or questions regarding your crops – don’t hesitate to get in touch!