There can be no doubt that we are seeing a substantial and noticeable shift in weather patterns – whether it be extreme heat, drought and wildfires, or extreme cold and flooding.
So, in our latest blog, Arthur Barraclough discusses the potential changes growers can make to minimise the issues that these conditions create and what seed breeders are doing to counter potential problems; as well as looking at the positive impact farmers and gamekeepers have on the environment.
How do these emerging weather patterns impact game cover options?
Certain crops are better suited to drought conditions than others.
For example, maize and sorghum are tropical crops and enjoy hot summers, however, they do rely on decent moisture initially to get them established. Maize is also useful because it can be drilled deeper than most other seeds, meaning that it can be slotted into moisture that may not be available in the top layer of soil.
Chicory is another great option for free-draining and drought-prone soil types. It is a perennial so will come back year on year, helping to take the pressure off annual establishment, and it has a deep taproot that pushes right down into the sub-soil layer.
Extreme Cold Snaps
There has always been a demand for winter-hardy crop options, with this demand only becoming greater now that we are beginning to see colder winters.
Winter-hardy crops are important for two reasons: first, game cover needs to be present right through the shooting season, and secondly it is useful for crops to stand well to produce viable grain for farmland birds into the ‘hungry gap’ (December-April). Kale is a traditional winter-hardy option, and it continues to be popular, particularly within bird mixtures.
Newer brassicas such as Utopia are also useful faster-growing options that will thrive in a cold winter. Capetown Sorghum, Japanese Reed Millet and Flightpath Game Maize are some other good options to cope well with colder winters.
Land which has started to flood in the winter is a real challenge, perennial options can work well but are often prone to die off if they are stuck in standing water for too long.
Depending on the expected severity of the flooding, often a later-sown option can work well as it gives the plot suitable time to dry out in the spring. Autumn Promise would be a good option, and the resultant crop is strong stemmed so can withstand a certain amount of surface water.
I would suggest deciding on a rotation of three crop types, mainly to spread the risk – whilst also producing a nice variety of habitats across the shoot. Splitting the crops three ways between an annual crop (such as maize), a biannual crop (such as Pheasant & Finch) and a perennial cover (such as Royal MK 5) works well.
This helps in the sense that there is funding available for most of our crop options. AB9 winter bird food mixtures tie in nicely with game covers, chicory can now be included within these mixtures which is good news for customers in drought pone areas.
Other options such as AB1 nectar mixture enhance the overall habitat on the farm, and once established will last for up to five years, helping to avoid the stress of waiting for the correct conditions for drilling in the spring.
Where is our Focus?
Seed dressings can be particularly useful in dry years like this when crops are either drilled into difficult conditions or are planted much later once moisture has finally arrived.
Our kale and Utopia are treated with Combicoat which is a concentrated fertiliser seed dressing. This ensures the crop gets established as quickly as possible and spends less time at the vulnerable two-leaf stage.
We continue to trial new varieties of all our product options. The main criteria we look for are fast establishment, winter-hardiness and feed yield. Fast-growing brassicas are developing well which as mentioned previously offer a good option in drier years as there is no rush to drill them early.
We also have some nice early-maturing grain sorghum varieties which, unlike some of the older varieties, will produce a viable grain and therefore a viable feed source for game and farmland birds through the winter.
Later maize varieties can also work well in drought years, our Foxxi variety does not tassel or produce a cob until much later than standard varieties, so it stays green and ‘leafy’ for longer – a popular crop for many of our customers.
How can farmers and gamekeepers benefit the environment in these testing times?
In extreme weather the increase in monoculture – large areas of the same crop type which often offers limited environmental benefit – becomes clearer the see. In contrast a ‘patchwork quilt’ of habitat created by shooting estates and farmland entered into stewardship will fare much better.
This has been clear to see this summer whilst out on customer visits. Despite the drought, second year wild-bird mixtures were still bright green with flowering kale and chicory, maize had got down into moisture and was looking well (and producing a feed source for deer!!) and nectar mixtures are producing a haven for pollinators.
There is a growing demand for over-winter cover to avoid leaving any arable land bare. Bare stubble can lead to nutrient leaching and risks damaging water quality, particularly likely with the increase in extreme heavy rainfall we seem to experience nowadays.
Farms and shoots have been adopting these practices for many, many years.
So called ‘green manures’ soak up nitrogen and hold it in the plant before it can be incorporated back in ready for the following cash crop. Similarly, mustard used for game cover on over-winter stubbles will have a secondary benefit of binding the soil together and reducing nutrient run-off.
A lot of stewardship options have been implemented specifically to protect water courses, including grass margins (SW1), wildflower margins (AB8) and over winter cover crops (SW6). These all have huge benefits in retaining ground water and preventing leaching in vulnerable areas.
With the indisputable increase in these extreme weather patterns, it is well worth thinking ahead when planning your game crops, your stewardship schemes and your over-winter cover.
By planning all of this in good time, you are far more likely to have a successful crop that holds and protects your birds, whilst retaining a good income from your stewardship schemes.
Further to this, and perhaps just as important, it projects the positive message about the work of the shooting and farming sectors. If we are seen to be benefiting the environment, it bodes well for our futures. By feeding wildlife, assisting pollinators, fixing soil, preventing run-off and more, we are able to reach out to a wider audience and create a better understanding about the countryside and those who serve it in their everyday lives.