If you have a good contractor, our advice is to keep them happy and on board!
Topping, Mulching or Combining Maize
Getting rid of the previous season’s game cover is likely to be the first job. Our advice is not to move too quickly; cover crops left post-shooting continue to provide shelter and food for game and farmland birds. In the case of stewardship, crop removal will be determined by regulation.
A front-mounted mulcher is best at preparing the way for primary cultivations. Being forward-facing means an eye can be kept on the task at hand and nothing springs back behind the wheels. Some maize can be combined at the end of the season and held as feed for the following year (2 tonnes per acres is not unusual).
A customer of ours in Wiltshire harvested his gamecover maize last year. He said it worked very well and he fed it back to his cattle. It is worth noting that the customer had his own drying facility, so it made sense to use it. He intends to do the same this year.
Once a cover crop plan has been decided, primary cultivations can take place. Ploughing is often the best option after maize, burying the trash (important in controlling fungal diseases like eyespot) and leaving a clean seedbed to work with. It is preferable in some cases to plough early and let the soil weather-down; but if the plot has poor water retention and is prone to bake, it is better to plough nearer to drilling.
A simple three-furrow plough is usually all that is needed and one can be picked up for reasonable money. The advantage of this type of plough is it does not take much pulling (80-90hp is sufficient) and a small tractor kicking around the farm is more than up to the job. If you are a novice to ploughing, we recommend you seek some basic advice, if only to avoid bad habits! The key is to bury all the trash and keep it level.
Where there is not much trash, primary cultivations can be carried out with a minimum tillage implement (as long as a sensible depth is maintained). A machine that allows leg depth to be altered and discs/tines to be adjusted is important, so that the cultivation is appropriate for soil and seedbed conditions.
Once the primary cultivations have been done and there is soil available to work, the secondary cultivations can start. A power harrow combination drill is a popular choice.
If the drill is single purpose, another cultivator should be selected. For lighter or stony land, a tined machine is preferable.
Occasionally two cultivations are required to achieve the correct tilth. If the land is on the heavier side, a disc cultivator is better to make greater impact (avoid doing this when the ground is sticky and wet as everything will get clogged up). Be prepared, so that cultivations can start straightaway when the conditions are right.
Power harrows can be used but care should be taken to avoid making pans. On lighter ground, if it is worked down too finely, an ensuing rain storm will create a soil cap and the seedbed will slump. A power harrow can be very effective, however, on dry heavy ground.
At this stage any compaction issues need to be addressed. A sub-soiler is normally the best answer, which will lift the ground and let in oxygen. A McConnel Shakaerator is a common choice as it has deep legs and an oscillating weight that creates a vibrating motion through the leg to help break the subsoil. Flat lifts which lift the ground are another option.
Drilling Row Spacing
Timing, seed placement and seed rates are very important, but this can be to no avail if seedbed preparation falls short. Precision drills give complete control on seed rate (usually 40,000 seeds per acre). Combination drills, which also harrow, are useful in that they cut out at least one pass.
Drills also determine row width – and where mixtures are being sown – 24in row spacing is a good guide because it enables game to move within the crop. When drilling mixtures it is helpful not to put more than a hectare’s worth of seed in the hopper at one time. This allows an eye to be kept on calibration and will help prevent seed separation within in the mixture, thus avoiding a predominance of one plant species in a particular area.
Time of planting is crucial. Our personal preference is a box drill, which is accurate and can be easily manoeuvred in smaller areas. Particular appliances that stick out for us are the Fiona drills, Moores Uni Drill or an old MF Box Drill.
Rolling is usually best for smaller seeds because it encourages seed to soil contact. Rolling maize is not the norm, but if the seedbed is lumpy and the forecast dry it can be beneficial. Rollers should be as wide as is practicable for the size of the plot to reduce the depth of wheel marks.
Conventional Sprayers – Whether using a tractor or quad, the spray operator must have the appropriate certificates; i.e. PA1 and PA2. Ideally the sprayer should match the width of the drill. For example, where a 3m drill is used, a 6m or 12m sprayer would be perfect.
The simpler the weed control programme, the better. Timing is everything. Not only does the plant have to be at the right growth stage, the weather also has to be favourable. The last thing you want is to apply chemical and 2hrs later for it to rain.
Band Sprayers – A relatively new concept for game crops, band spraying targets weeds, leaving the crop untouched. As long as the crop is drilled on the correct row spacing, it works well. Machines originally bought for vegetable production – but now deemed too small – are available second-hand, and are perfect for game cover.
Generally the sprayer is mounted on the front of the tractor with a tank on the back.
Inter-row weeders – Similar to band sprayers, Inter-row weeders are most commonly used in sugar or fodder-beet, and work by cultivating between the plants, wiping out unwanted material and weeds within the row. This system is attractive because it is not restricted by the weather. It is particularly suited to stewardship mixtures where the range of chemicals that can be used is limited.
It is often better to get some fertilizer worked into the seed bed. The size of the spreader will depend on the size of the tractor; a unit with capacity to hold one or two bags is sufficient and easy to use. Keep an eye on rust build-up around the running mechanisms as this can distort an even application.
Applying farm yard manure – Farm yard manures have an important, if sometimes challenging role. An application rate of 10 tonnes per acre is deemed optimum.
Large spreaders can be difficult to move around a shoot; and while smaller second-hand spreaders are on the market, beware of worn bearings and rust holes.
So, as proven time and time again, it pays dividends to spend time researching the machinery and the methods that you are planning with regards to your cover crops. A cover crop will only be successful if the seedbed is prepared in the correct manner – so be sure to keep this in mind and take the time when the season ends and the work begins!