Consider autumn-sown bird food crops in a dry year

Autumn-sown bird food crops grown under environmental stewardship schemes could be more reliable than spring-established crops, growers are being advised.

Mike Green, an arable specialist at Natural England, says poor establishment of spring bird food crops has been “widespread” across the UK this year due to the dry conditions.

Many suffered poor germination and failed to establish, resulting in thin, patchy crops overcome by weeds.

Those crops should be removed and re-drilled this autumn with appropriate bird-food crop, unless they are producing enough “useful” weeds for farmland birds to feed on, such as knotgrass, redshank, black bindweed and fat hen, says Marek Nowakowski, owner of the Wildlife Farming Company.

“If we’re moving into a period of unreliable conditions for spring sowing conducive to producing bird food, then maybe autumn sowing is something we should be thinking about more regularly.”

Where crops have failed, spray them off with 2.5 litres/ha of glyphosate with no more cultivation, assuming a reasonable seed-bed still exists, he suggests. “Re-cultivating will disturb the ground and produce more weed seed, so it is best just to spray it off.”

Mr Green agrees re-sowing is a viable option for growers, particularly if crops are full of blackgrass and wild oats and were of no bird food value.

“Autumn sowing now will deliver food for next winter, which will have the same effect as if you left it and were able to sow it successfully next spring.

Winter triticale, winter linseed, gold-of-pleasure (camelina), stubble turnips, kale and oilseed rape are all good autumn-sowing options, he notes. “The plants will survive the winter and grow away in the spring.

“Fodder radish and quinoa are less good at surviving the winter – but that depends on how harsh the weather gets.”

Supplementary feeding – the spreading of grain on the ground two or three times a week – can be an effective way of continuing to feed birds, especially from the end of January when crop seed supplies may be dwindling, he adds.

In a harsh winter, farmland birds may have already consumed seed provided by bird food crops, and they could face starvation unless they receive supplementary feeding.

There is no impact on environmental stewardship agreements, where crops have failed due to weather, notes Mr Nowakowski. “Farmers are not paid by results.”

Practical tips for sowing bird food crops in the autumn

A conventional drill should be used to plant crops, says Richard Barnes, manager of Kings Game Cover and Conservation Crops. “The crop can be broadcast but drilling is preferred. Most cereal drills will be absolutely fine – look to plant in 12-15in rows for best results.”

Seed-beds should be prepared in a similar way to preparing a cereal or oilseed rape crop in the autumn. Seed sowing depth should be between 0.5-1in maximum, depending on crop type, he says. “With a fair degree of brassica in the mix, you would not want to be more than one inch.”

If you are able to drill in September, it might be worth adding some kale (Coleor) to the brassica mix, he suggests. “It’s a variety which is particularly good at establishing in early autumn. Like oilseed rape, it will keep its head down in the winter and if it’s successful, it will give your crop extra value and potential to last for an additional year.”

For brassica mixes, an application of slug pellets could be necessary, especially in a wet year, and be aware of the potential threat from pigeons, he says.

Fertiliser requirements in the autumn are minimal. However, top-dressing the crop in the spring will make a notable difference to overall performance and most importantly seed yield.