Summer sowing: benefits and options

Grass Buster

Grass Buster is a winter-hardy brassica mix ideal for flushing points and wind-breaks, and can be planted from May through to the end of July - Credit: Archant

Arthur Barraclough of Bright Seeds follows on from his spring sowing article and looks at the options shoots and 'keepers have for summer and autumn planting

Arthur Barraclough

Arthur Barraclough of Bright Seeds - Credit: Archant

Even if conditions allowed all cover crops to be planted satisfactorily in the spring – say, with game maize – it would, nearly always, not be the most desirable option. Apart from the benefit of not putting all your eggs into one basket, summer-sown crops can be invaluable in creating the diverse habitat in which game birds and wider farmland wildlife thrives best.

With the range of seed options available for summer and autumn sowing, the opportunities to grow first-rate crops that not only qualify for stewardship but fit within the rotation of a commercial farm have never been greater. Look towards stewardship codes AB16, AB9 and SW6 in particular for later-planting options that have knock-on benefits for game.

All-out spring sowing closes the door to planting a cover or catch crop post-harvest, usually where the farmer has grown cereals. Historically, there has been a tendency among gamekeepers to address post-harvest cropping by broadcasting seed into a standing cereal crop; but recently it is more common to wait until the cereal crop is harvested and then establish the follow-crop by either direct-drilling or drilling/broadcasting the seed into cultivated stubble. Rolling will help to hold moisture and improve seed to soil contact too.

Overlooking a conventional spring-sown option in favour of later establishment has the advantage of improved weed control. Weeds can be displaced (either by glyposhate or repeat cultivations, which is particularly useful on organic sites) prior to planting and the new crop sown into a stale seed-bed.

Of special note in the current times is that later sown crops are not as hungry for fertilizer as their spring counterparts. In the case of mustard, for example, excessive nitrogen can cause the crop to lodge and go flat.

Direct drill your summer sown crops

Direct drill your summer sown crops - Credit: Archant

Improved soil structure
Having made the decision to move away from exclusively spring-sown crops, attention to planting into sufficient moisture is of heightened relevance as soil progressively dries as the summer approaches. Therefore, ploughing the land pre-planting, in July for example,  is generally ill-advised. There is no surer way of drying the soil, and it is far better to prepare the seed-bed early, spray for weeds pre-planting and ideally wait for a timely shower before sowing. 

The strengthening trend of minimum tillage and direct drilling within farming systems is good news for establishing summer-sown game covers. Later-sown mixtures mainly comprise small seeds such as mustard; unlike maize, for example, they cannot be drilled at an adequate depth to access residual moisture levels. Nonetheless, on the upside, the nature of the seed means they have superior vigour so will germinate and grow quickly as soon as rainfall arrives, demonstrating again why timeliness is key. 

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Many customers include legumes in their summer and autumn sown crops, particularly within those crops that are to be left for more than one year. Legumes, such as vetch and crimson clover, fix nitrogen from the atmosphere which helps the non-legumes within the mix and has the potential benefit of reducing the need for artificial fertiliser application.

So called ‘catch crops’ can vastly help in achieving better utilisation of residual nitrogen, whilst also doubling up as useful game cover. By soaking up nitrogen from the soil, the nitrogen is held in the plant and is not vulnerable to run-off into water courses. As well as this, later planted crops can greatly improve soil structure, useful within game cover crop rotations as well as the wider arable farming system. Such cropping is well practised in wider-Europe, and through new environmental policies is gradually becoming a standard practice in the UK.

The various plus points associated with planting crops after the spring window is nicely in tune with wider environmental policy, not only Mid-Tier Stewardship which brings the roles of the farmer and gamekeeper into closer proximity, but also the separate Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), also within ELMS. Crops such as Autumn Bumble Bird (AB16) highlight this with clear benefits for soil improvement, pollinators and farmland birds.

SFI is the first of three new environmental land management schemes in which farmers will be paid to produce public goods such as water quality, biodiversity, animal health and welfare, and climate change mitigation. Falling within the government’s 25-Year Environment Plan, it is part of its Net Zero programme. The scheme launches in 2022, and initially farmers in England who are eligible for the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS) will qualify.

Many of the stewardship mixtures that qualify for Mid-Tier funding will also meet the criteria of SFI. As always, gamekeepers and farmers have much to gain by working together and readying themselves for the various new schemes ahead. Wildlife plots containing flowering and seed-bearing plants are an example of cropping that will qualify under both schemes.

The Utopia seed mix

 Utopia is a kale/mustard hybrid that can be planted from June through to August. It is fast-establishing and produces a waterproof canopy particularly suitable for partridge. - Credit: Archant

Later alternatives
The gamekeeper has many late-sowing options. Among the most popular is Bright Seeds’ Autumn Promise containing lightning mustard, utopia, vetch, buckwheat, forage Rape, leafy turnip and a Rape/kale hybrid. It can be sown from June to August, and qualifies for AB9 winter bird food stewardship. The inclusion of vetch and buckwheat reduces the overall risk of flea beetle damage as the mix isn’t made up entirely of brassicas. Also qualifying for AB9 is Grass Buster, a winter-hardy brassica mix ideal for flushing points and wind-breaks. This can be planted from May through to the end of July, its tolerance to grass herbicides making it a good selection where grass weeds are an issue. The inclusion of kale within the Grass Buster adds to its popularity, and a well-established crop can be left for a second year.

There are many options for single-species crops too, one of which is Utopia. This is a kale/mustard hybrid that can be planted from June through to August. It is fast-establishing and produces a waterproof canopy particularly suitable for partridge.

In looking at the alternatives to spring-sown cropping, we must not underplay the importance of maize which will remain a staple game cover for many shoots. I would suggest maize, along with spring-sown mixtures such as Pheasant & Finch will always have a front row position. Those mixtures planted later in the season play a supportive role by moving reliance away for a single crop. Avoiding sowing all crops in the narrow window offered in spring, spreading costs and risk, and offering birds a varied habitat is a persuasive case. Add to that an environmental payment incentive, and it is surely compelling!