Looking to Next Season – Game Cover Cultivation

With the 2021/22 game shooting season sadly over, we look forward to next season and a significant jobs in the gamekeepers’ calendar – cultivation!


The importance of successful cultivation cannot be over-estimated. Whether getting wild-bird mixtures or maize in the ground; crops need a combination of patience, considered planning and a suitable system.

When we look at spring cultivation, the weather and soil conditions dictate everything, and to over-look these factors is inviting trouble.

Therefore, though we saw considerably milder temperatures than we often do throughout much of December, it was still very wet, with the rainfall continuing for much of January. And, with three named storms in February alone – to say the ground is wet would be an understatement.

Even if the surface looks dry, expect saturated sub-soils that need turning over and looking at before anything is put in the ground.


Before a spade even breaks the topsoil to assess the situation, there are a number of points that are always worth having in mind.

The first of these is crop rotation and where the coming seasons crops are going to be positioned. Remember, rotating various crops over the years is vital for healthy soil and to avoid major weed burdens. It is also less than ideal to be in the position of your seed arriving without knowing where it will end up. So, try to keep this in mind. We often suggest that deciding what crops are going to go where should be one of the first jobs following the seasons close. Some crops can be drilled earlier than others, which also helps to spread the risk. So now is the time to be thinking about that.

Deciding what fertiliser to use and when is another key decision that needs to be made. Whether using slurry, lime, manure, or something else, ensure that there is enough of it, and that it is going on throughout the cultivation process. All too often, we see fertiliser used at the end, meaning it sits on top waiting to be washed away in the next spring shower to pollute water courses.

Herbicides need to be considered as well. Regardless of the type, make sure it is ordered and accessible before cultivation begins, otherwise a stale seed bed can quickly turn into something less pleasing. On occasion, herbicides can be used at a full rate before cultivating to start off the killing process, and then finished off later.

Topping and Soil Moisture

Once the pre-cultivation checklist has been given adequate thought, we can then get onto the ground. Get the topper out by all means, but make sure the underfoot conditions are suitable Remember, patience is a virtue.

If concerned about the ground, it is far more sensible to dig a bit of ground with the spade and see what the conditions are really like. As already covered, it has been extremely wet recently and it is likely that the subsoil will be saturated, heading out too early can cause unwanted soil compaction.

We also advise to consider your crop types when topping. For example, topping perennials like Chicory too early, when there are still hard frosts around, can be damaging. The exposed new growths and roots are going to be saturated and can be marred or even killed off by the frost. Likewise, topping wild-bird mixtures too early can be detrimental, causing the destruction of important habitats for game and songbirds.

Once the spade is out and a closer look as been taken at the ground, we will know how compacted the soil is, which will play an important role in knowing what system to use.

Seed Bed Systems

During any crop establishment, we are looking to create the most favourable conditions for the seed as possible. To germinate a seed needs water, oxygen and suitable temperature. Germination begins by taking up water – with the water content of the seed increasing from 14% to 45-60%. The swollen grain then germinates and if the temperature is high enough, the development happens very quickly.

There are several different techniques for creating a seedbed and the technique used will depend on many factors such as soil type, availability of machinery and weather conditions.

The three main systems used by farmers and gamekeepers when planting cover crops are –

Conventional – Ploughing in of top growth/trash, cultivation of sowing depth with a harrow/disc, conventional drilling followed by fertiliser application.

Minimal Tillage – No ploughing. The top few inches of the ground is usually worked down with a power harrow or discs and then drilled.

Direct Drilling – No cultivations. The seed is drilled straight into the seedbed. This helps with moisture retention and also enables good levels of organic matter to build up in the soil. Be mindful of potential compaction issues.

All of the above systems have pros and cons, with people often using a combination to best suit them. For instance, if soil compaction is an issue, then the ground will need to be worked to bring some relief – however by turning the ground over organic matter that the soil is storing such as Carbon is released back into the atmosphere – having a detrimental effect on the wider environment. If moisture retention is the issue, then direct drilling works well, but one must be mindful that machinery isn’t causing further soil compaction.

A technique that we suggest which has the rounded benefits is to direct drill but run the plough through every few years. This way, soil compaction is being released, when necessary, without important organic matter being lost each year. Obviously, rotating crops and planning ahead to look after your soil is imperative too.

A final issue to watch out for when cultivation begins is weed pressure. Cultivation naturally encourages weed growth because it disturbs the natural weed seed bank in the soil and promotes new weed growth – so keep this in mind.

Get It Right First Time

Basically, successful cultivation, via planning and thought, is crucial. And, if everything grows as well as hoped for, not only will this mean you have the game cover that you started out wanting, but it makes the shoot more lucrative. Despite there being a range of excellent recovery and rescue mixes available, there is no doubt that it is cheaper – and less time consuming – to get it right first time.

It could be argued that good cultivation is even more critical for some of the larger, commercial shoots. Whereas smaller shoots are often on land that is used for other activities, such as farming, the larger shoots are habitually geared only to shooting. If game cover fails, or isn’t to an adequate level, then there is no shoot and very little other going on.