With less game birds on the ground – for well documented reasons – Marc Bull looks at why feeding maize through the winter is essential this year – whilst also giving some advice on windbreaks and supplementary feeding…
As we are well aware, it’s an expensive time to run a shoot. As well as every day costs rising to levels never seen before, a terribly timed bout of bird flu meant poults were arriving later than ever, and costing more than ever.And whilst looking after our game birds appropriately through the wet and cold winter months is always essential, this year – due to the physical number of birds being lower, and the financial cost of them being higher- it is arguably even more important.Fewer birds means mortality levels need to be as low as possible, but at the same time means each and every bird needs to perform to its fullest to ensure good days are had by the attending guns. And, with the outlook not good, any birds that can be retained and successfully bred after the season are a real bonus.So, with all of this in mind, feeding maize through the winter, and thinking about keeping your birds warmer – and in the right place – could be of huge benefit this winter.
The Cost of Maize
On first glance, this may feel like another input cost that has risen and isn’t worth the forking out on. Yes, it has risen in cost, but nowhere near as much as other items.
For example, the cost of poults rose substantially before this season began. The average poult cost was somewhere around £5.50, but some of my customers ended up paying as high as £9. And partridge was even higher. With the average being between £7-£9, and the top end being above £12 in some cases.
Maize on the other hand, has seen a more gradual rise.
The going rate for a tonne of maize last year was £500/t. This year, it is £600/t – so a rise of £100/t or a fifth. This, in the grand scheme of things, is definitely worth paying for.
Feeding your game birds with maize this winter comes with a number of benefits.
First and foremost is the energy levels that it provides. Maize is higher in energy, protein, fat and starch than wheat, meaning birds need less of it to make a difference.
As a high energy feed element, maize is also going to be more effective in holding birds where you want them. Much like humans, when the weather is colder and wetter, game birds need more energy (and more calories) to function; whether this be on a shoot day or simply to survive. And we all know the importance of keeping mortality levels low this winter. So, if the birds are getting more energy efficient feed, they will be able to deal with the harsh winter that bit better.
Performance and conditioning will also see a marked increase when maize is being fed. This means the guns are valuing the prospect of less, more energetic birds. It also means the bird will contain more fat and, ultimately, taste better on the table.
One final tip: the more days a shoot has, the more important high energy feeds will be. So, for the larger shoots, that is something worth keeping in mind.
Windbreaks & Warm Ground
Although we still have the majority of this season to go, its never too soon to start thinking about next year – particularly when poults aren’t expected to be any cheaper.
On that note, as the weather gets colder and wetter, now is an ideal time to access some of the colder parts of your shoot and look at how the game cover is performing.
If, for example, some areas around your favourite drives feel too open and windy, now is the time to assess where a windbreak – such as chicory or reed canary grass – can go next year. Basically, identifying any prominent areas that could be warmed up with a perennial windbreak will reap the rewards next year.
Doing this not only keeps birds in and around the areas that you want them, it is also economical. With the price of feed and poults what they are, if birds are able to stay sheltered and warmer, they are less like to succumb to the conditions and will use less energy trying to stay warm. The last thing we want is birds wasting energy that they are being fed through being cold and wet.
Furthermore, anything that doesn’t get shot this year is more likely to breed in safer and warmer conditions. And, although this wouldn’t make a huge difference to overall numbers, with current prices every little really does help.
Supplementary Feeding (AB12)
A reminder that for those involved in AB12: Supplementary winter feeding for farmland birds, this begins on 1st December.
The feed ratio must be 70% cereals and 30% small seeds.
For more information on this scheme, the prohibited activities and the golden rules, visit our blog on The Hungry Gap.
Or, if you need feed, visit our feed range.
Are Fewer Birds the Future?
Clearly, the number of birds that were available this year wasn’t something that we could control, and it isn’t something that we want to see repeated. However, the idea of flooding the ground with thousands of birds does now seem like something from the past. The cost implications, even more so with the way things are going, are becoming too great to justify these kind of numbers. Moreover, with the likes of the RSPB and the Chris Packham contingent to consider, releasing unsustainable numbers of birds is not helpful with the ongoing PR battle that our industry faces.
On that note, creating the right habitat for game and farmland birds to thrive in is something that cannot be overstated. Not only does it help with the PR battle, but it allows game birds to breed in the wild, as previously discussed.
With the review of ELMS underway, and other environmental suggestions on the table, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibilities that creating habitat and boosting biodiversity could become a legal requirement for releasing birds. For example, in Denmark, if you want to release more than 100 pheasants – and more than one bird per hectare – a biotope plan for the area is a requirement. It wouldn’t be surprising to see something similar implemented here.
Whether or not biodiversity plans will become something of a necessity, creating the right habitat to hold birds where you want them is essential. And, if fewer birds on the ground is to become more common, the habitat becomes all the more important. They will be kept safer and, as we are seeing this season, valued more